News Column

Race against time: last-ditch appeal to prevent breakup of Wedgwood ceramic and art archive: Collection due to be sold to meet pension debts November deadline to find last pounds 2.7m to avert auction

September 2, 2014

Mark Brown Arts correspondent



The vast Wedgwood collection of pottery, art and manuscripts - regarded as one of the most important industrial archives in the world - will be broken up and sold on the open market unless pounds 2.74m can be raised by the end of November.

Yesterday the Art Fund announced a three-month fundraising campaign to avert what it said would be a disaster for the nation.

The collection, valued at pounds 15.75m, has been described by the UN cultural organisation, Unesco, as "unparalleled in its diversity and breadth". Most of the money has been found, but not all. Stephen Deuchar, the Art Fund's director, said: "Our worst nightmare is that the collection is dispersed across the world and the threat of that does hang across this appeal very heavily."

Housed in Stoke-on-Trent's Wedgwood museum, the collection has more than 8,000 ceramics and 75,000 manuscripts, as well as paintings by artists including George Stubbs and John Singer Sargent.

The future of the museum has been in doubt since Waterford Wedgwood went into administration in 2009. The demise of the company left a pounds 134m pensions liability and because the museum was still solvent - and five employees were in the pension plan - the rules meant that the full pension debt was transferred to the museum.

The museum trust went into administration but that still could not protect the collection. The high court decided in 2011 that it could be sold to repay some debt - a ruling upheld by the attorney general in March 2012.

After much legal wrangling, the Art Fund has now come up with a plan it hopes will save the collection for the nation and meet some of the pension liability.

The collection has been valued halfway between Christie's lower and upper valuations of pounds 11m-pounds 22m and if all goes to plan it will be bought by the Art Fund for pounds 15.75m and given to the V&A, which will, in turn, ensure it remains in the Wedgwood museum at Barlaston. So far pounds 13m has been pledged by the Heritage Lottery Fund and private trusts, leaving pounds 2.74m to be raised by the end of November.

There are questions over why the collection was never properly separated from the company - as was the Wedgwood family's intention in 1961, said a representative, Alison Wedgwood, yesterday.

Tristram Hunt, the historian and Stoke-on-Trent Central MP, said he blamed the media tycoon Robert Maxwell. "Maxwell's plundering of the Mirror Group pensioners created the pension law, which then had this very unexpected consequence of the 'last man standing' principle."

Deuchar said other collections, partly as a result of what had happened with Wedgwood, had now made sure they were completely legally separate from commercial entities that could go bust. "In the future, museums will learn lessons."

Raising the money was the priority, said Deuchar. Normally the Art Fund has to lay out the case for why something has to be saved. "You have to put a lot of energy into establishing that fact. We have had not had to convince anyone that this collection matters . . . every potential donor, every observer, every critic has agreed the importance of the collection is unrivalled."

Hunt said Josiah Wedgwood was the Steve Jobs of the 18th century. "The pottery industry in Stoke-on-Trent is putting on jobs again, it's making money again, it's exporting again. It is a growing industry and to lose the collection, which is such a source of inspiration to designers, would be absolutely horrific."

Public donations to the campaign will be matched pound for pound up to pounds 500,000 by a private charitable trust. Most of the cash raised so far is from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Captions:

Plates designed by the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi in 1970; George Stubbs's 1780 portrait of the Wedgwood family; and the famed jasperware


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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