HC Deb 06 November 1968 vol 772 cc889-95
The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Anthony Crosland)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now answer Question Nos. 31, 60, 61, 62 and 73.

On 29th May last the right hon. Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan) and the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle) came to see me to tell me that in their view a "ring" was operating illegally at art auctions. The Board of Trade made inquiries, but found no support for the general allegations that had been made.

Following a further meeting with the two hon. Members, the Board made additional inquiries, in the course of which it wrote to the Society of London Art Dealers on 6th August. The Society replied that it might be prepared to give some information but could not do so before the end of September. When it did so, on 30th September, a specific allegation was made, for the first time, about the sale at Aldwick Court. It did not substantiate the allegation by any evidence and did not name anyone who might provide evidence. No names of possible witnesses were mentioned until 24th October when Mr. Tomalin, of the Sunday Times, gave information to my officials. I then referred the papers to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

I am now advised that, as the auction took place on 26th March, an offence against the Auctions (Bidding Agreements) Act, 1927 is out of time for prosecution and, moreover, was already out of time on 30th September, when a specific allegation was made to my Department.

I am further advised that it would not be possible to institute a prosecution for any other offence based solely on the circumstances of the Aldwick Court sale.

As regards the price paid by the National Gallery for the Duccio painting, this was determined by the price which an overseas buyer was prepared to pay for it. I regret that those with knowledge of the activities of the dealers at Aldwick Court did not come forward, either to the Board of Trade or to the police, much earlier, when action could have been taken.

I am, however, not content to leave the matter as it now stands and I am considering urgently by what means inquiries can best be pursued into this particular case and into the general question of the operation of auction rings.

Mr. Crouch

I am glad that the President of the Board of Trade has told us that he is not content with the present situation. Is he aware of the concern felt in the House and throughout the country at the casualness of his Department in dealing with this whole matter, which is, after all, a commercial one? It was extraordinary casualness by his Department in not advising the National Gallery about the position of this painting, which was sold for £2,700 and was subsequently to be bought by the National Gallery for £140,000. We are much concerned at such casualness.

Mr. Crosland

As to the price paid by the National Gallery, I think that the hon. Gentleman has not understood the position. That price would have been unaffected by any warning given to the National Gallery, because it was set by the price which the Cleveland Museum of Art was willing to pay for the picture. That simply does not come into the matter.

As to the question of casualness, I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. No doubt there can be mutual criticism here. I am not certain that we have not got lessons to learn from this. I think that we have and I propose to learn them myself. Nevertheless, if the hon. Gentleman is saying that we should have been more subtle, or more diligent, I can only say that we would have been greatly helped in our inquiries if we had not met a wall of silence, amounting almost to a conspiracy of silence, on the part of many people who, it now emerges, have for some months past known not only about the Aldwick Court case, but about the activities of this "ring" in particular.

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

First of all, if no prosecution is possible, will the right hon. Gentleman consider setting up, under his own powers, an independent inquiry, under a Queen's Counsel, to look into the whole circumstances of this particular matter? Secondly, may I point out to him that in blaming, in my view quite unjustly, certain people, whose names we drew to his attention, for not giving this evidence, they could have found themselves in the very difficult circumstances of a libel action if names were given and mentioned?

Mr. Crosland

This surely raises the acute problem of anyone making inquiries in this matter. What I was pointing out—and I am not trying to pretend that we have been blameless—was that our activities were certainly not eased by the fact that it proved so extraordinarily difficult to get anyone, however privately, to come forward and give us the information, which we now know many of them had.

As to the point about the inquiry—may I say, in passing, that I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle) for the help which they have given us in opening this matter up—this is a possible form of inquiry. I would not like to commit myself, but it is one of the forms that I am now considering.

Mr. A. Royle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my right hon. Friend and myself gave him specific allegations at our meeting with him in May this year, and that as a result of the incompetence of his Department in not moving at an earlier date, the D.P.P. cannot now prosecute? Will he therefore take steps to consult with his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary with a view to taking out a deportation order against Mr. Weitzner, who, quite clearly, has abused the hospitality of this country?

Mr. Crosland

The question of a deportation order against any citizen is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and in any event I would not be willing, in question and answer, to find someone guilty until he is proved so. We must leave that question open.

As to the matter of what information was given me, there clearly is, as the hon. Gentleman knows, a conflict of memory here. He and his right hon. Friend were good enough to see me in May, and neither I nor my official who accompanied me can recall any mention being made at that meeting of either the Duccio painting or the Aldwick Court sale generally, nor does the note of the meeting carry any reference to these things.

I am quite prepared to say that this may be an error of memory on my part. I cannot, of course, guarantee that it was not mentioned. If it was mentioned, the matter simply escaped the attention of both the official and myself and was not in the record of the meeting. I must point out that when, in July, I wrote to the hon. Member and his right hon. Friend a letter which they found unsatisfactory, their reply was still in purely general terms and made no reference at all to the Duccio or the Aldwick Court auction.

Mr. Channon

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is far too serious a matter to be left without a definite conclusion and that, in the interests of the trade and of people who have been mentioned outside and inside the House, it is absolutely essential that there should be a public inquiry so that we can know the facts and action can be taken in future to make sure that these distressing events do not recur?

Mr. Crosland

This is a matter of public concern. As I said, I do not want to leave it where it stands if only because unjustifiable aspersions are cast in consequence of this on the British art market as a whole, the great majority of whose dealers have standards of irreproachable integrity. I am very anxious that this matter should be cleared up. I repeat what I said in my original reply, that I am considering urgently by what means inquiries can best be pursued both into this case and into the more general problem of auction rings.

Mr. Strauss

Is not one of the basic problems that my right hon. Friend is now out of time in prosecuting because the action took place six months ago? Is not this obviously a ridiculous situation? Will he consider urgently an early amendment of the governing Act?

Mr. Crosland

My right hon. Friend has a very important point. In this extremely difficult world, where information is very hard to come by, it is not always possible to find out the facts of the case within six months. The time limit, or whatever the legal phrase is, and the penalties, are matters which rate looking into very urgently.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Would my right hon. Friend confirm that, if there has been any fraud, and it has occasioned loss, it was loss to the trustees of the estate, and that they have their civil remedy in the civil courts if they wish to avail themselves of it?

Mr. Crosland

I hesitate very much to make any remarks about legal matters, not being a lawyer and knowing nothing about the law. However, as I understand, the position is as stated by my hon. Friend—that it is a matter for the estate. I have seen, as I think the right hon. Member for Reigate and the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey, have, a letter from the solicitors acting for the estate, suggesting that there is certain action which they can take. But this is so subtle a legal point that I shall not even read the bit of my brief concerning what they might do.

Mr. Whitaker

Is it not unsatisfactory that, once again, a newspaper, and particularly the Sunday Times, has investigated and exposed frauds which apparently the police and my right hon. Friend's Department were unaware of? Therefore, as the last prosecution under the Section was brought 40 years ago, will my right hon. Friend strengthen his investigation department and/or amend the Act and increase the maximum penalty?

Mr. Crosland

I have already given an answer concerning the question of penalties and amendment of the Act. That is something that we must look into.

On the other point, it is not just a question of our investigation department not being strong enough. This is a world from which it is extremely hard, for reasons which one can understand, to elicit any definite information about this kind of malpractice.

As I have said, perhaps we should have been more diligent or subtle, but when we started we came up against the wall of silence which I have described. We now know that a large number of people had the information which we all have now and did not choose to make it available to us, for whatever good reasons—fearing libel, or whatever it may be.

Mr. Lubbock

When the right hon. Gentleman came up against the wall of silence to which he refers, did he make a report to the police about the allegation made by hon. Members? If so, on what date did that occur?

Mr. Crosland

No. When they came to see me, the hon. Gentlemen did not have the information about the witnesses who would come forward which first appeared at the end of October and which was the crucial point at which it was posible to refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The names of those possible witnesses did not come forward to me or to anybody else until 24th October, and until we had them the matter could not be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions or to the police.

Mr. Ellis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he has revealed that quite a lot of people knew exactly what was going on? Therefore, would he look into the position whereby people who knew what was going on have a duty? It is possible to pursue these people for conspiring to keep silence when they knew that a conspiracy existed. Would my right hon. Friend look at the matter from that angle?

Mr. Crosland

I do not think that we have evidence of conspiracy in the legal sense of the term, so that I would not make any comment on that matter. My remarks on this subject will, I think and hope, be noted in the art world. It would be of great help to my Department, which has limited powers in this matter, if we had more co-operation from that world when it comes to an alleged scandal such as this auction "ring".

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

Arising out of the question on the law put by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), I wonder whether the President of the Board of Trade could say what has happened to the conversations between the Home Office and the Board of Trade concerning a survey into the auction law promised in the House by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department on 23rd December, 1964, as appears from column 1259 of HANSARD for that date?

Mr. Crosland

This was before I came to the Board of Trade, but, naturally, I have made inquiries. As I understand the position, an inter-Departmental investigation was made which concluded that the basic trouble—and this is a strong point—is not the letter of the law but the difficulty of discovering evidence. Therefore, it was concluded, rightly or wrongly, that the case for altering the law was not sufficiently made out, particularly since, after the famous scandal of two years or so ago, we had understood that matters had somewhat improved. However, in the light of this situation, I propose to look at the whole argument again and may not necessarily agree with what was decided two years ago.