Arts Council finds cracks in Croydon’s crockery sale scam

Croydon Council’s secret scheme to flog off parts of the publicly owned Riesco Collection of ancient China and ceramics – first revealed by Inside Croydon – might yet end up costing the council millions.

23-cr-riesco-china-04That is the implicit threat, of the forced refunding of grants made to up-grade the facilities at the Clocktower, from a statement made yesterday by a senior Arts Council official.

The disapproval of the Arts Council adds to remarks expressed by the Museums Association, who said the sale was “unethical”, as well as opposition from members of the Riesco family, whose patriarch, Raymond Riesco, donated his priceless ceramics collection to the people of Croydon in 1959.

The case against the Riesco sale is mounting by the day, as a lawyer who has – finally, after much council delay and obfuscation – been given access to the original deed documents, says that there is “considerable doubt” that the council has the right to sell the 24 items, estimated to be worth at least £13 million, and which have already been transferred to auction house Sotheby’s.

David White, a Park Hill-based semi-retired solicitor and former member of the GLC, is uncertain whether Croydon has provided him with a full set of documents, even though he has been chasing them for the deeds for almost a month.

“Even on the basis of what I have,” White told Inside Croydon, “there’s considerable doubt about whether the council has the right to sell the items without obtaining a formal release of covenants and contractual terms from Riesco’s successors in title.”

Lawyer David White: has doubts about the undertakings given to the council

Lawyer David White: has doubts about the undertakings given to the council

It is understood that the only “undertaking” that the council has obtained so far was from a conversation with Riesco’s 98-year-old daughter, Jean, when she was visited at her Surrey home by council deputy leader Dudley Mead in late April. Mead’s case for selling off the priceless collection, apparently, was to provide more comfortable seats for older patrons at the Fairfield Halls.

Another part of the council’s case for making the sale – the “escalating cost” of insuring the collection – has also now been exposed as an outright lie.

When Inside Croydon blew the cover on the secret sale on May 31, Croydon Council’s Ministry of Truth issued a statement that, significantly, admitted that they had already off-loaded the two dozen items. The council said, “The decision to sell the items, which are currently being stored in a secure central London location, comes after escalating insurance and security costs meant that the full collection was becoming too expensive to maintain.” Those are our italics, for emphasis.

Last night, Tim Pollard, the council cabinet member responsible for the sale, gave a written answer at Town Hall questions claiming that to continue to display the Riesco collection would cost £60,000 to acquire improved security equipment and an annual insurance premium of £20,000.

Pollard failed to mention that that one-off security cost and premium adds up to little more than the £67,000 which he and his wife, Helen Pollard, also a councillor, pocket every year in Town Hall “allowances”.

By continuing to trot out the insurance line, Pollard appears to be attempting to mislead the public into the notion that the council has been paying an insurance premium. It has not.

In response to a Freedom of Information request asking for details of the insurance paid by Croydon Council over the past five years, last week Christine Tanriverdi, the council’s FOI coordinator, wrote, “The Riesco collection has not been insured in the past five years.” We put that in bold, for emphasis.

Tim Pollard: worried about "escalating" insurance, when the council has not insured the collection for at least five years

Tim Pollard: worried about “escalating” insurance, when the council has not insured the collection for at least five years

Given that much of the collection is irreplaceable, this confirms previous suggestions that the collection may have never been insured by the council.

Pollard’s increasingly weak position on the Riesco sale was underlined last night when, of all the councillors available in his majority Conservative group, he had to resort to being asked a patsy question about the disposal by his own wife, Helen Pollard. “Couldn’t she have asked you that over breakfast?” someone in the gallery was heard to say.

On another occasion last night, Pollard signalled what could be a significant shift in the council’s legal position as he claimed that the collection had not been left by Raymond Riesco as “a bequest to the council”, but instead “as part of a commercial land and property transfer”. Fears that Croydon’s Tories are also keen to flog off Riesco’s former family home, Heathfield House and grounds, at the earliest opportunity appear to be well-founded.

Having stripped away the council’s untruths over the reasons for the sale, the fact that the process could attract the ire of the Arts Council may cause even greater problems for Pollard and Mead, as they desperately scrabble around to find some cash to pay for their £27 million commitment to refurbishing the Fairfield Halls.

The Arts Council made a seven-figure grant to Croydon Council to allow the Riesco Collection to be put on proper public display. That money is only available to a fully accredited museum.

Yesterday, Scott Furlong, the director of acquisitions, exports, loans and collections unit at Arts Council England, raised the spectre that all or part of that grant might have to be refunded by Croydon by saying: “The current proposals to sell items from the Riesco Collection do not meet the nationally agreed standards of museum practice which are required by the accreditation scheme.”

Furlong also took an important position over ownership of the collection being with the residents of Croydon, rather than Pollard’s “commercial transfer” to the council. “We would welcome a dialogue with Croydon Council and other stakeholders to discuss the proposed sale,” Furlong said, “and seek an approach that would retain access to these important objects for the people of Croydon, as intended by the original acquisition.”

In other words, the Arts Council wouldn’t trust Pollard, Mead & Co with the crockery at a Greek restaurant, never mind a priceless ceramics collection of national significance.

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About insidecroydon

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 inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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