Priceless: Nailing the council’s lies over Riesco sale

HAMIDA ALI sets the record straight on the some of the deceits and outright untruths put forward by Croydon Council leader Mike Fisher and others to try to justify flogging off the borough’s heritage

Museum-of-Croydon-1To quote Indiana Jones – it belongs in a museum.

I worked at Croydon Clocktower from 1997 to 1999 and as gallery assistants we were responsible for the security of the museum and all the exhibitions – including the Riesco Gallery, which I opened and closed hundreds of times.

I loved my time at the Clocktower. Even though my career aspirations weren’t to become a museum professional, I developed a deep respect for the team in the Croydon Museum and Heritage Service and quickly learned that the service had a national reputation for its standards and excellence. I didn’t just enjoy the job because I was fond of my colleagues or because I enjoyed welcoming people to the place, but because I felt part of a bigger endeavour to reflect a non-stereotypical image of Croydon back to itself and the wider world.

In 2011, during the public outrage over the council’s proposals to close a number of the borough’s libraries, I shared people’s anger. But I was also disappointed that the same level of concern wasn’t voiced over the cuts to the museum service which took place simultaneously.

So I’ve been really heartened by the number of people in Croydon who’ve spoken out against the latest cultural outrage in Croydon – the proposal to sell 24 of the highest value items in Raymond Riesco’s priceless collection of Chinese ceramics which – alongside his family home Heathfield – he left to the people of Croydon.

Since Inside Croydon broke the story of the sell-off, a number of local politicians have now commented. Now, it is time to set a few facts straight.

Fact: Almost everything in the collection was on display

Last Sunday on Croydon Radio, Mike Fisher, the leader of the council, defended his decision to sell-off these items on the basis that the objects were so valuable that the only alternative was storing them in boxes. This is not true.

Council leader Mike Fisher: his excuses for selling off the Riesco Collection are untrue

Croydon Council leader Mike Fisher: his excuses for selling off the Riesco Collection are untrue

The only items that were not on display were for aesthetic reasons. For example, only half of a 12-piece tea set was displayed to help make space for the rest of the collection. The most valuable item in the collection was on display – a Moon Flask which is a white ceramic piece shaped more like a bottle with blue decoration.

It would be easier of course to point you to the webpages which used to provide a catalogue of the collection including a picture of each object, a brief description and its accession number (what’s an accession number? We’ll come back to that), but I can’t since those webpages have mysteriously disappeared from Croydon Council’s website.

Fact: The collection hasn’t been insured for years

Fisher’s other excuse for this sale was that the council can’t afford to insure the collection. This is not true.

The Riesco Collection hasn’t been insured for years.

Part of what makes the collection expensive to insure is not just the intrinsic value of each of the objects, but because they are part of a coherent collection. Since each item was chosen specifically by Raymond Riesco, if one of the items was damaged or stolen, it would become irreplaceable because any substitute wouldn’t have been selected by Riesco himself.

Fact: You can’t just auction off accessioned items

The Croydon Museum Service is an accredited museum – a status awarded by the Arts Council of England. One of the qualifying criteria is operating an acquisition and disposal policy. The objects in the Riesco Collection are accessioned items – which mean that in curatorial terms, their status is special and more significant than any ordinary asset.

To dispose of any of them they must be formally de-commissioned in line with the council’s own policy and the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics.

Both Croydon’s policy and the MA’s code are clear – wherever possible museums should retain items in the public domain. Indeed, Croydon’s own policy states that the governing body (that is our councillors) accepts the principle that, except for sound curatorial reasons, there is a strong presumption against the disposal of any items in the museum’s collection.

Fact: There have been no requests for repatriation

At a recent Croydon Question Time event, Tim Pollard, the cabinet member for children, families and learning compared the status of the Riesco Collection with the Elgin Marbles, suggesting that Chinese collectors may of course see the objects as part of their cultural heritage.

But unlike the Marbles and the Greek government’s case, no requests for repatriation have been made about the Riesco Collection. Indeed, some of the items collected by Raymond Riesco were deliberately manufactured for an export market.

Fact: Croydon Museum’s own accreditation could be at risk

If Fisher, Pollard and Dudley Mead pursue this course of action without proper consultation with the Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Museums Association, the accreditation status of our own museum could be in doubt.

That’s a bigger deal than it sounds. Croydon would no longer be eligible for Lottery funding – which made the redevelopment of the museum possible -– nor would any other accredited museums lend any items to us – which would mean swift returns of objects currently on display in Croydon to the British Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum.

A museum’s role is to safeguard its collections in trust for the public. This latest move by the Conservatives who run Croydon Council fundamentally compromises the very purpose of a museum.

The objects in our museum should be sacrosanct, looked after to preserve our diverse cultural heritage for the public to enjoy – in the long-term.

This proposed sale generates a single cash payment – not an ongoing income. This one-time deal removes the right of the public to enjoy these priceless objects for free forever, and all in order to pay for a refurbishment of a theatre which only benefits ticket-holders.

This is the council robbing Peter to pay Paul – and not for the benefit of everyone.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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2 Responses to Priceless: Nailing the council’s lies over Riesco sale

  1. An excellent piece!

    We need a public meeting with Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Museums Association in attendance so that we the residents of Croydon can create our own strategy for heritage so that we actually have some heritage left to celebrate by the end of our “Heritage Festival”.

  2. At last!

    The council’s hole-in-the-corner dealings are subjected to the disinfectant of sunlight. And yet, I can’t believe any councillor, even a Croydon Tory, would willingly heap this much opprobrium upon himself or his party this close to an election.

    Even Dudley Mead, besotted as he is with Fairfield – addicted to hob-nobbing with musicians during intervals in classical concerts – would surely seek something other than self-immolation.

    Unless, of course, the alternative is even worse: and for that possibility we are again indebted to Margaret Hodge, the independently-minded Labour MP who chairs the increasingly influential House of Commons cross-party Public Accounts Committee.

    The latest cat she has set among the pigeons is a report revealing that central government has cut the money it gives to local authorities by 25 per cent in real terms over four years.

    The report also says that some authorities might be so strapped for cash that they will be unable to meet their statutory responsibilities.

    Given that Croydon has been badly managed for years, under this administration and its predecessors, are we witnessing the final throw of the dice? Is Mike Fisher selling the family ceramics as he prepares to fend off the bailiffs?

    And if the authority is broke, what of the future? We have the ability to turf out this incompetent shower next May, but the financial responsibility continues.

    The only choice for the incoming administration will be to increase Council Tax substantially. And it would be politically prudent to do so early in the four-year cycle to give the guilty party a chance to seek forgiveness before the 2018 election.

    So gird your loins, whoever you support politically, and prepare for more cuts, more fire sales (the municipal art collection could be next) and a swingeing increase in Council Tax from April 2015.

    Remember: a large part of this problem is caused by cowardly David Cameron and his partner in political crime, Nick Clegg, shifting the pain on to local authorities.

    Also remember, they can do so because we, the electorate, allowed successive governments from Mrs Thatcher’s onwards, to take ever more tax-raising powers away from local authorities.

    And that makes councils increasingly ineffectual: dependent on machinations at Westminster over which they have no control.

    I say: give us back non-domestic rates – all of them – with no strings attached – now!

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