HL Deb 29 April 1991 vol 528 cc478-80

3 p.m.

Lord Renton asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they will take to ensure that the Badminton cabinet remains in the United Kingdom.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has deferred the decision on the export licence application for the Badminton cabinet until after 17th May 1991. This is to give an opportunity for an offer to purchase to be made at or above the recommended price of £8,697,000. The National Art Collections Fund, on behalf of the Fitzwilliam Museum, has launched a national appeal to raise the necessary funds. I wish the fund every success in its endeavour.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Do the Government accept that the Badminton cabinet is the finest, the largest and the last of the baroque cabinets made by the famous Medici workshop in Florence? Are the Government further aware that it was commissioned in 1719 by a former Member of your Lordships' House, and that it bears the Plantagenet arms, which came to the Beauforts through John of Gaunt? Does my noble friend agree that, if this masterpiece were to go to the United States, it would be a loss to the heritage not only of this country but of Europe? Does he further agree that if the cabinet remains here, it will be in one of our great museums? At present it is at the Tate Gallery.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that the cabinet is a very fine example. There is an appeal in progress. The sum of £2.65 million has been raised to date, of which £1.5 million has come from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Incidentally, the grant aid for 1991–92 has been quadrupled to £12 million by the Government.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the Badminton cabinet was offered by the trustees to a museum for £4 million, which is half the amount it fetched later at auction? Is the noble Viscount further aware that the same thing happened with the Chatsworth drawings? They were offered for half the price which was eventually reached. Will the Government consider changing their policy so that items of this importance can be accepted before they go to auction and reach inflated prices? Is the Minister aware that, if that had happened in France with a similar historic treasure, it would have been bought immediately by the French state?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. About seven months prior to the sale at Christie's the cabinet was offered by the trustees of the Beaufort family to the Victoria and Albert Museum for £4 million, with three years in which to pay that sum. The trustees of the V&A felt unable to take up the offer.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the whole system of export stops has been rendered farcical by the lack of adequate government finance? Will the Government now consider a system by which, if an export ban is imposed on a work of art, they will find the money so that a national collection can acquire it?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Government are doing a great deal in this area. They accept heritage items, buildings and land in lieu of inheritance tax dues. Since 1985 over £42 million-worth of tax has been satisfied by such items. The Government offer a significant tax concession to individuals who own items on which inheritance tax is due if the items are sold to an approved institution. Since 1985 items valued in excess of £55 million have been acquired by UK national museums and galleries through the mechanisms of the private treaty sale at a cost to those institut ons of only £25 million.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, the Minister spoke about tax allowances. However, does he agree that in this country they apply only after death? There are no tax allowances during a person's lifetime, and that is what is needed. Does the Minister agree that all the facts shout out that not enough money is put into the system?

Last year, out of 15 export stops, only five of the objects were saved and they were at the lower end of the financial scale. Does the Minister agree that if this situatiop continues without the Government intervening and putting more money into these funds, we shall gradually have a draining away of our most valuable pieces of heritage, wherever they originally came from, and that that will be a great loss to the country as a whole?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, there are tax concessions for people to give articles in lieu of tax which need not only be on death. They can be gifts made before death. Over the past five years, of the items found to be of national importance in which decisions on licence applications were referred, 51 per cent. have stayed in this country.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, do the Government agree that it is only worth spending this very large sum of money on the cabinet if it is to remain at Badminton? Judging from photographs, to my mind the cabinet is not an outstandingly beautiful object. If it is a very remarkable piece of carpentry which is to be put in to a museum, then it might just as well go to Italy or America. The money saved could be used for things which are essential to this country such as the preservation of buildings which once taken down cannot be put up again. I include also the integral fittings of such buildings.

Viscount Astor

The noble Lord, Lord Grimond, makes an interesting point. My noble friend the Minister for the Arts is concerned only with export licences. He is not concerned whether the Badminton cabinet stays at Badminton.

Lord Renton

My Lords, following the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, will my noble friend accept that the photographs have not done justice to the magnificence of this cabinet? The noble Lord can see the cabinet for himself at the Tate Gallery. In view of the strong representations made this afternoon by noble Lords, will my noble friend tell his colleagues in the Government who are concerned with this matter that the time has come to revise our system of saving works of art and therefore our export licence system?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend is right. It is a very fine cabinet. It is currently at the Tate Gallery. I am sure that if any noble Lord wishes to make a donation, it will be gratefully received.

Forward to