Councillor Sara Bashford spoke up in the Town Hall council chamber last night and tried to justify Croydon’s sale of 24 items from the borough’s priceless Riesco ceramics collection by claiming that thousands of Croydon school children who visit the display cannot tell the difference between valuable pieces in the collection and ordinary pots and plates.
There is good reason why the Tory councillor for Selsdon and Ballards is now known across the borough as “Book Token” Bashford: before she was stripped of the council cabinet job for culture, she had seriously suggested that instead of Croydon running a library service, it should distribute book tokens.
Last night, here was Book Token once more, addressing the council’s corporate services committee, and suggesting in all seriousness that the judgement of under-educated children was a good reason for ignoring the considered advice of historians, lawyers and academics from the British Museum, the Museum of London, the Arts Council, the Lottery Heritage Fund and the Museums Association.
Ignorance is bliss, eh Sara?
The Museums Association has described Croydon’s Riesco sale as “unethical”. But then, what would Bashford, who as well as her £43,339 Croydon Council allowances also pockets a state-funded salary as a constituency aide to MP Gavin Barwell, know about ethics?
Bashford’s extraordinary and crass assertion of the infantalist principle for heritage management preceded the inevitable, that the Conservative majority on the committee would recommend that the sale should go ahead. Note the names of those who did as they were instructed and voted to sell-off the borough’s heritage: chair Jan Buttinger (Kenley ward), Donald Speakman (Purley), Jeet Bains (Coulsdon West), Bashford, Terry Lenton (Coulsdon East) and Vidhi Mohan (Fairfield).
That decision was as good as set in stone a year ago, when according to a council FoI response, some of the items were first removed from the borough. It is understood that the pieces have been with a West End auction house for some months, and that they are being lined up for sale in Hong Kong, to attract as much cash from mainland China as possible.
The two cabinet members who recommended the sale – Tim Pollard and Steve O’Connell – did not themselves take part in the debate on their pawn shop proposal. Between them, Pollard, the deputy leader of Croydon’s Tories, and O’Connell receive a total of £89,183 a year from Croydon in “allowances” for their part-time council positions, but Pollard did not even bother to turn up last night and O’Connell wandered into the meeting some minutes late.
This left supposedly non-partisan council staff to argue the case for the sale directly with Labour councillors.
Paul Greenhalgh, the executive director for children, families and learning – Pollard’s department – said that only 24 items were being sold. Labour’s Stuart Collins responded, “The best 24 pieces.
“We are talking about 24 mini-masterpieces. These are obviously the best pieces in the collection because they are the most highly valued.
“This decision is madness,” Collins said.
For Greenhalgh, the pieces for sale are “not part of heritage of Croydon, as a place”. Goodness knows what would happen to the British Museum’s collections if Greenhalgh ever got anywhere near running the place.
The Riesco family got drawn into the debate. Collins talked of rumours that vulnerable members of the family had been pressured into agreeing to the sale. Julie Belvir, the council solicitor, one of the most senior employees in Taberner House, responded by stating that Jean Riesco, daughter of the collector Raymond Riesco, now in her 90s but still sprightly and fully compos mentis, had found such references to vulnerability in the media offensive.
Riesco had left his ceramics collection, and his home at Heathfield House, to the borough in effect so that his family would avoid the crippling death duties that would have been due – similar arrangements by other wealthy and land-owning families in post-war Britain did much to create the property portfolio of the National Trust that many enjoy today.
But when Toni Letts, another Labour councillor, raised the question of whether there would be tax consequences for the Riesco family now, as a result of any sale, council solicitor Belvir opted to criticise Raymond Riesco for his “complex business arrangements”. That complexity clearly has nothing to do with Belvir’s legal department having been unable to locate some vital documentation relating to the collection and previous sales.
Belvir asserted that “the family have very clearly approved” the sale and that, in any case, the council “hold the collection absolutely” and is thus entitled to sell. This is not an opinion to which other lawyers who have seen the deeds agree.
Another Labour councillor, Simon Hall, was marked down by Richard Simpson, the council’s finance director, for suggesting that the sale had been forced by the council’s “bankruptcy”. According to Simpson, the sale was taking place only in the context of a “31 per cent cut in government grant in the last three years”, with more cuts to come under the Conservative-led government’s Comprehensive Spending Review.
Greenhalgh repeated the council line that with increased insurance costs that the best items could no longer be exhibited in public. Unfortunately, as the council’s responses to a FoI request have shown, and the Croydon Natural History and Science Society’s opinion has underlined, this is at best misleading, at worst an outright lie: Croydon Council has not paid a penny in insurance premiums on the Riesco Collection for at least five years.
Greenhalgh also said that the Museum of Croydon could still operate even if it lost its official accreditation, as has been threatened by the Museums Association as a sanction arising from the sale. Greenhalgh must know more about museums than the Museum Association.
He also said that there was “no legal basis for the reclaim of funds”, involving Croydon having to refund nearly £1 million in Lottery grants, as the Heritage Lottery Fund has threatened to do in its response to the council’s sale of the ceramics. Perhaps Greenhalgh knows more about Lottery grants than the Heritage Lottery Fund, too..?
Possibly the last hope for the opponents of the Great Riesco Flog Off is a legal challenge, on a matter of council constitution, as threatened by the Labour group.
There is considerable doubt whether the legal deeds allow any part of the collection to leave the country, even to be exhibited, never mind if sold. But when the borough solicitor was asked about this, there was no answer provided.
Councillor Hall had requested that such a major financial transaction – the pieces are estimated to be worth around £13 million – should be treated as a “key decision”, and all key decisions require approval at a full meeting of the council (the council meets infrequently, with the next meeting not until October 21). Belvir, as the borough solicitor, said that this was not the case, as decisions only on expenditures of more than £1 million were taken by the full council, and not major sales.
With talk of a possible – if expensive – judicial review of the sale, the defeated Labour group left the Town Hall to seek urgent legal advice.
O’Connell’s final words were, “I have agreed to ask officers to go ahead because I think this is the right thing to do.” Which is a sort of admission that O’Connell values his own opinions above those of the British Museum, the Museums Association, the Arts Council and the National Heritage Lottery Fund.
- If you want to add your name to the protest against the sale of the Riesco Collection, click here to sign the online petition, and share the link with your friends and colleagues
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