Thousands of paintings, ceramics, sculptures and other works are held in the stores of North East museums and galleries, and a Freedom of Information request has lifted the lid on what is kept in the region.
Northumberland County Council has some 90 works of art, old buildings, and other cultural artefacts on its books – but it did not confirm how much was displayed and how much was in storage.
The county’s collection includes a painting by disgraced former television presenter Rolf Harris.
Councils have faced calls to downsize their art collections to help ease budget constraints elsewhere, but the region’s leaders have said they are the custodians of the items for future generations.
A spokesperson for the authority said: “Northumberland County Council have a number of artworks in our possession, many of which are on display in our libraries, museums and historic buildings for the benefit and enjoyment of local people and visitors.
“Many artworks in our care have been bequeathed or gifted to us and are often relevant to Northumberland’s history and heritage. The council is therefore not in a position to sell these artworks as part of the county’s collection.”
North East councils collectively hold tens of thousands of artworks in their stores.
Newcastle Council has by far the biggest collection in the region, with 30,447 items held in storage, with a drawing of Northumberland’s Dunstanburgh Castle by Turner among the highlights.
A spokesman said Newcastle does have a significant art collection, partly due to individuals bequeathing items to the city, and the authority worked with Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums to display as much as possible so the public can enjoy and learn from them – but added that it is impossible to put everything on display.
“However, all of TWAM’s paintings can be viewed online and efforts are being made to make all of the sculptures accessible in the same way,” he added.
Other authorities in the region made similar points, with one adding how some works needed to be kept on rotation purposes for conservation reasons.
John O’Connell, chief executive of the Tax Payer’s Alliance, called on North East councils to make better use of the works.
“These figures are truly staggering and demonstrate a worrying trend across the public sector,” he said.
“It is indeed the case that some councils are bequeathed these artworks, but the breadth of artists nevertheless suggests huge outlays of taxpayers’ cash.
“At the very least, councils should put all of these works on display, and then seek to reduce the size of the collection for the benefit of taxpayers in the North East.”