Letter from the director: Can we make another save for the nation?

Stephen Deuchar explains why the Wedgwood Collection is finally up for sale and how it can be secured forever for public ownership

As many members will know, the Art Fund and its partners have been battling in recent years to prevent the sale of the incomparably important Wedgwood Collection. Though we always knew that a public fundraising campaign might ultimately be required, we were concerned to ensure that no stone was left unturned in trying first to find an alternative way forward. It has been a difficult journey – and it is a complicated story, which we have been unable to tell in full until now.

These are the main points. When the manufacturing company Waterford Wedgwood UK plc first went into administration in 2009, it was initially believed that as the Collection was owned by the separate Wedgwood Museum Trust, it would not be at risk as a company asset. However, Waterford Wedgwood’s main creditor was the Pension Protection Fund (the pensions industry body set up on the instructions of the UK government to pay the pensions of past and present employees of bankrupt companies). And the PPF showed that as five of the Museum’s employees had belonged to the same pensions group as the main company’s 8,000 employees, the company debts, including the pensions liability of £134m, should now fall on the Wedgwood Museum Trust. This turn of events was a consequence of a ‘last man standing’ rule in recent pensions legislation, which makes the last solvent company belonging to a pension scheme liable for the whole. Thus, astonishingly, the Museum had to take on the full £134m debt, and as a result the Trust went into administration in April 2010.

The Trust and its lawyers believed that the Collection was still protected from sale, but the PPF – required by its own constitution to claw back any assets it could, as partial compensation for taking on the Wedgwood pensions payments – disputed this at law, and in December 2011 the High Court ruled that the Collection was indeed not protected by its Trust and was thus available to sell. We supported further legal efforts to contest this, but in March 2012 the Attorney General reluctantly upheld the judgement.

At this point we introduced the administrator of the Wedgwood Museum Trust to lawyers Mishcon de Reya, who had offered to help – believing that the Museum might have originally received inadequate legal advice in relation to its wish to safeguard the Collection, and therefore that litigation might now be possible. Mishcon’s detailed exploration of this possibility was conducted on a no-win-no-fee basis, but by October 2013 they had concluded there was a diminishing likelihood of a successful action, and we all – finally – accepted that there was no alternative to the Collection being sold.

Having kept in discussion with the Pensions Protection Fund throughout this process we now urgently sought to prevent the open auction of the Collection by Christie’s. In October, in consultation with the Heritage Lottery Fund (closely involved through its original investment in the Wedgwood Museum, and consequently able to exercise financial leverage over the Collection as an asset), we agreed that we would lead a fundraising campaign to acquire the Collection outright in order that it could subsequently be gifted to a safe new national owner.

The PPF agreed to give us a year to achieve this, and a purchase price of £15.75m (approximately the midway point of a Christie’s valuation of the whole Collection made in 2012) was set, with a deadline of November 2014.

Although we strongly believe that the Collection should remain on display close to, and in the context of, the Wedgwood factory near Stoke, we think that the question of its permanent ownership should be treated as a separate matter – for it is vital that the Collection should remain safe in perpetuity, regardless of where and by whom it is displayed, and that all donors to our appeal are assured of this. We therefore recently asked the trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum whether, in the event of our successful acquisition of the Collection, they would accept it as a gift, and consider placing it on long-term loan to the Museum at Barlaston, which would be run by the new manufacturing company, Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton (WWRD).

We are delighted that both the V&A and the directors of WWRD have accepted this way forward in principle. Given WWRD’s current £34m investment programme at Barlaston, which will place the Museum within a revitalised visitor experience and factory tour, the future for the Wedgwood Collection has, in fact, never looked brighter.

As we face the final £2.74m fundraising hurdle we should reflect on the progress so far. In particular I would like to thank Carole Souter and Jenny Abramsky, respectively chief executive and chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund, and their trustees, for working so closely and constructively with us at every stage and for – magnificently – contributing such a substantial sum towards our fundraising target.

A private trust has also committed a major donation of £1m, matching the sum tabled by the Art Fund’s own trustees; two further trusts have given £150,000, and we have just heard that a further private trust will give up to £500,000 to match, pound for pound, the donations this autumn of Art Fund members and the wider public. Yes, I think that, together, we can make another save for the nation.

Donate to the appeal.

This column appears in the autumn 2014 issue of Art Quarterly, our members' magazine. To subscribe, please buy a National Art Pass.

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