Riesco objections: Croydon Council’s squandering our heritage

Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society was formed in 1870. It is a serious organisation that does much to celebrate the borough and has been a constant help in showing that the borough has depth and character beyond its image as a shopping town dominated by concrete architecture.

An antique Chinese tomb piece, part of the under-threat Riesco Collection

An antique Chinese tomb piece, part of the under-threat Riesco Collection

What follows is CNHSS’s considered letter of objection to the proposal to sell 24 items from the Riesco Collection, which the Conservative-controlled council’s corporate services committee last night recommended go ahead.

We have highlighted a few of the more important points

The Riesco Collection was stated by the donor, the late Raymond Francis Alfred Riesco, to consist of ‘some 670 pieces’ when it was first offered as a gift (it was not a bequest) to the County Borough of Croydon in 1958, with the exception of five pieces donated to the British Museum and ‘a few little pieces for my son’ (Michael Raymond Riesco). So far as is known the remaining pieces, transferred to corporation ownership according to an agreement dated 1 December 1959, numbered therefore something like 660 pieces, of which 230 are still in the possession of the London Borough of Croydon. The codicil to the donor’s will (he died in 1964) confirms that the five pieces selected by him had by 1961 been transferred to the British Museum. It appears that the Collection remained at Heathfield House until the donor’s death in 1964. How many pieces the late Michael Riesco (who was both an executor and a beneficiary of R.F.A. Riesco’s will) retained for himself has not to date been ascertained. Exactly how many pieces, but we assume of the order of 660, came into public ownership we have yet to discover. We have asked, but have yet to receive an answer.

The terms on which the Riesco Collection was given to Croydon, agreed by Croydon Council in 1959, included clauses to the effect that (to comply with Estate Duty exemption requirements) ‘the collection will be kept permanently in the United Kingdom and will not leave it temporarily except for a purpose and a period approved by the Treasury; and reasonable steps shall be taken for the preservation of the Collection [implying presumable the collection as a whole]; and [the collection] shall be displayed at Heathfield House … or suitably re-housed in another building used for the same purpose either on the Heathfield Estate or elsewhere in Croydon.

Subsequently R.F.A. Riesco offered also to Croydon, as a gift, prints and other works of art. What became of these we have not yet ascertained. They may or may not have come into the ownership of the people of Croydon, as represented by the elected members of Croydon Council. We have asked, but have yet to receive a reply.

We have yet to trace documentation for the 1970 sale, the only mention of which located to date is in the LB Croydon printed and published Council Minutes for 1984. How many pieces were sold in 1970 is not yet known.

Steve O'Connell: the Consveratives' cabinet member who will now approve the sale of the Riesco collection

Steve O’Connell: the Conservatives’ cabinet member who will now approve the sale of the Riesco Collection

In February 1984 Croydon Council had the collection valued. At this time the collection was divided into what was referred to as the ‘Permanent Collection’ (displayed in specially made secure show-cases at the Fairfield Halls) and the ‘Reserve Collection’. The Council’s adviser, Roger Bluett, examined the Reserve Collection and recommended that eight pieces should be retained as part of the Permanent Collection. As these eight pieces were stated to represent 5% of the entire Reserve Collection at that date, that part of the entire collection presumably numbered 160 pieces. If the collection as received by Croydon in 1959 was 660 pieces, and 152 pieces of the then ‘Reserve Collection’ were sold in 1984 / 85, it would seem that disposals in 1970 and possibly at other dates amounted to 288 pieces, leaving the 230 which reportedly now remain in public ownership in the town. Croydon Council has proposed reducing this ‘Permanent Collection’ by a further sale of 24 pieces, leaving 206 objects, of the order of one third of the original, over 450 having seemingly been sold since the collection was received.

We have found no record yet concerning how or why the donor’s wishes were ignored in 1970. But in 1984 a further massive sale was agreed by Croydon Council, Sotheby’s being recommended as vendors on the Council’s behalf. Consequent sales in 1984 and 1985 reportedly realised a little more than £250,000.

Relevant questions put to the responsible Cabinet Members have, despite the Freedom of Information Act, not yet been answered adequately or, indeed, at all.

Tim Pollard: the Conservative councillor who has driven the Riesco sale, but is unable to answer many of the questions about the legal status of the collection

Tim Pollard: the Conservative councillor who has driven the Riesco sale, but is unable to answer many of the questions about the legal status of the collection

There are further unknowns, which Croydon Council has vet to explain. In 1972 a Riesco Charitable Trust was registered with the Charity Commission. Who established this, who the Trustees were, what the objects of the Trust might have been, and how any assets were disposed of are all currently unknown. That Trust was removed from the Register in 1995 as it had ‘ceased to exist’ for reasons currently unknown to us. In 1992 Croydon Council itself resolved to submit a Trust deed (the wording of which had been the subject of legal advice) to the Charity Commission, although in fact no such Charity was ever established: why not is not at all clear! And it appears that another such attempt was made in the mid 1990s, with a similarly nil result.

We DISAGREE with the proposed sale on the following grounds

[1] The proposal has been described by the Museums Association [the professional body for museum curators] as a ‘financially-motivated disposal’ which does not meet the Association’s Code of Ethics on disposals. It is unacceptable that apparently the relevant professional body has not been consulted.

[2] The primary motivations for the proposed sale appear to be (1) reduction of expenditure on secure accommodation and insurance for the Collection, and (2) subsidisation of the intended refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls. It is common practice for major museums and art galleries not to insure large, valuable, and essentially irreplaceable collections (especially those, received as gifts, which they did not have to pay for) and it had been our impression that this was the case also with the Riesco Collection (in which case the ‘saving’ would be nil).

Fairfield Halls: badly maintained and neglected through poor council policy, says CNHSS

Fairfield Halls: badly maintained and neglected through poor council policy, says CNHSS

[3] Disposal of a cultural and capital asset to meet what might be considered to be the revenue costs of keeping the Halls in good condition and repair is unacceptable. A financially responsible local authority would have budgeted for constant renovation and upgrading of the Fairfield Halls ever since they opened in 1962. The Borough Council has a very poor record of keeping its buildings in good repair and decoration, and the apparently suddenly discovered need for such work at the Fairfield Halls has the appearance of bad property management (as was also the case at the Stanley Halls for example)

[4] The proposed expenditure on the Fairfield Halls has been described as ‘investment’ implying a profit on money laid out. It may be doubted that this expenditure will result in the £27m being recouped with, additionally, a profit.

[5] Both the cultural and the financial value of any coherent collection exceeds the sum of the values of its constituent parts. Regrettably, the collection is already scattered. Five pieces were willed to the British Museum at Riesco’s death. Of those transferred to the ownership of Croydon Council in 1959, an un-ascertained number were sold in 1984/85 (possibly to a multiplicity of British and / or foreign owners) and possibly others at other times.

Dudley Mead: Consverative councillor who visited Raymond Riesco's 98-year-old daughter, Jean, to spin her the line about "comfy seats" at Fairfield Halls

Dudley Mead: Conservative councillor who visited Raymond Riesco’s 98-year-old daughter, Jean, to spin her the line about “comfy seats” at Fairfield Halls

[6] The wording of the draft Trust Deed put forward by the Council in 1992 to establish a charitable Riesco Trust to oversee the use of the proceeds of the 1985 sale were very firmly for the Council’s cultural provision within the London Borough of Croydon. Throughout, the emphasis was forward-looking and positive, embracing inter alia the maintenance and indeed augmentation of the collection (by new purchases) and by the making of grants for allied purposes. Although it has been suggested that no such charitable trust was in fact established (for reasons not clear to us) the draft Deed put forward in 1992 was worded appropriately and culturally responsibly.

[7] The Council’s cultural provisions have been drastically reduced and narrowed in recent years. Applying the proceeds of such a sale as is contemplated by the Council, whilst supporting refurbishment (modernisation, painting, decorating and repairs?) of Fairfield Halls and thereby indirectly supporting music and drama, &c., diminishes provision for other cultural services where there ought to be diversity. The David Lean Cinema might have been re-opened. The Borough Art Collection might have been properly displayed instead of taking much-needed space from a re-located Local Studies Library & Archives Service as currently proposed. Such a policy would be akin to the Borough developing, say, swimming pools while selling off football pitches and tennis courts. In its wildlife conservation policies the Council favours biodiversity, and the care of a range of habitats from grasslands, heathlands, woodlands to wetlands. Diversity of cultural provision for the arts is similarly important.

Chinese whispers: one item from the Riesco Collection that Croydon Council wants to flog off

Chinese whispers: one item from the Riesco Collection that Croydon Council wants to flog off

[8] Refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls is not a cultural end in itself.

[9] The 1984/85 sale set an unfortunate precedent in the disposal of valuable objects of high cultural value, although at least so far as is at present known the proceeds were devoted to closely related ends. A second sale will dangerously cement and extend that precedent, for the sale of valuable objects to meet un-related short-term financial needs.

[10] There is in our opinion a clear and unacceptable risk that the Borough Council will see the financially-motivated sale of further parts of the Riesco Collection, followed by valuable artefacts from the Borough’s Museum collection, paintings from the Borough Art Collection, and valuable books and manuscripts from the Local Studies Library and Archives Service to solve its financial problems.

[11] In the event that £ 13m or the like is found, by whatever means, for the Arts, Cultural and Heritage Services in Croydon, it should be devoted to making good the losses of cultural diversity and professional staffing over the last three years or so. The diversity of cultural provision in Croydon should be restored and maintained, not narrowed as proposed and further reduced.

This response has been agreed on behalf of the Society by a working group comprising C.E. Bailey, Dr. J.B. Greig, J.I. Hickman, B.L. Lancaster, I.G. Payne, P.W. Sowan, and C.J.W. Taylor, all being Directors of the Company and Trustees of the Charity.

Company Secretary

Additional observations

The ‘response template’ for this consultation is entirely unsatisfactory, allowing only a single very small space in which to explain objections, and further spaces for responses to be made on the assumption that the proposed sale will go ahead.

We note that items have already been removed from display in the Riesco Room, and that these are understood to have left the Borough. This, reprehensibly, pre-supposes that the sale is already decided, whether opposed or not [We have subsequently been assured that items removed from the central show-case were pieces on loan from the British Museum]

We have enquired whether or not the Riesco Collection has in fact been insured continuously since it came into the possession of the Borough, what any current insurance costs per annum, and what this cost is expected to be in the event of the collection being depleted as proposed [we have as yet had no response to out enquiry]

We note that it has been stated in the press that ‘the Riesco family’ (suggesting a plurality of persons) has been consulted and is in agreement with the sale. However, at least one of R.F.A. Riesco’s descendents has publicly disagreed with the sale. How many of his children (one of the three survives) and grand-children have been consulted is not clear [Croydon Council have informed us that three members of the family have been consulted].

We wish to ascertain whether or not the charitable Riesco Trust proposed by Croydon Council in 1992 was in fact formed as intended, or established in some modified form, or not set up at all, and the reasons why [Mr. Pollard has stated that ‘it is not known’ why this Croydon Council resolution was not carried into effect. Whether this means ‘not known to him personally’ or not the subjects of records surviving in the Council’s legal department is not clear. It would be quite extraordinary if the legal department’s records did not explain this mystery]

We are surprised not to have found a publicly accessible comprehensive file documenting the Council’s dealings with the late R.F.A. Riesco, which date from at least as far back as 1945, and are at some trouble now compiling such a file.

19 July 2013
Company Secretary

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This entry was posted in Art, Community associations, Croydon Council, Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society, Fairfield Halls, Riesco Collection, Tim Pollard and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Riesco objections: Croydon Council’s squandering our heritage

  1. neiljeffares says:

    A most helpful summary of an extraordinarily silly decision. I’ve added a postscript to my blog on the Detroit Insitute of Arts situation, http://neiljeffares.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/in-glittering-dust-and-painted-fragments/

  2. kusumparashar says:

    The consultation process is shady and cloudy. Nothing is clear, the Croydon Council should come clean regarding the sale of Riesco.

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