Croydon Council might not have legal power to sell Riesco porcelain

By - Tuesday 2nd July, 2013

A fortnight ago, local solicitor David White joined the Riesco debate to call for ‘full public consultation’. Now, in a Croydon Citizen exclusive, White offers a legal insight into the documents relating to the Riesco sale

I took part in a Croydon Radio debate two weeks ago. It was about Croydon’s proposed sale of items from the collection of oriental china given to Croydon by Mr Raymond Riesco in the 1960s. Cllr Tim Pollard stated he was satisfied the council had the legal powers to make this sale as Mr Riesco had made an outright gift of the collection to Croydon. At the time I could only rely on press cuttings to challenge this, as my request for copies of the relevant documents had already been outstanding with the council for two weeks.

A further two weeks expired, but I have now received the copies of the documents. They are:

i) An agreement made on 3rd December 1945 by which Mr Riesco agreed to sell, over a period of time, a large area of land, including his house, Heathfield, to Croydon Council.

ii) An agreement made on 1st December 1959 by which Mr Riesco agreed to give his china collection to Croydon Council on completion of the sale of the last piece of land referred to in the 1945 Agreement. It was noted that application had been made to the Treasury for exemption of death duties on the collection and part of the terms of this were that Croydon had to covenant to keep it in Croydon.

iii) A transfer deed dated 8th September 1964, shortly after Mr Riesco’s death, by which Heathfield and the remainder of the land was transferred to Croydon by his executors. I have not seen any document formally transferring the china collection, but I imagine this will have passed by delivery, on the basis of the 1959 Agreement.

Interestingly, the 1959 agreement and 1964 transfer both contain commitments (in the first case contractual terms, in the second case covenants) by Croydon Council to keep the Riesco collection “in Croydon”. Cllr Pollard seems to think that the fact the commitments were made partly to avoid death duties, and the Inland Revenue subsequently confirmed Mr Riesco’s estate was discharged from death duties, somehow negates the legal force of the commitments.

The council therefore appears to need a formal release from Mr Riesco’s successors

In my opinion this is not so. The council is still bound by the terms of the agreement and by the covenants in the transfer. The council therefore appears to need a formal release from Mr Riesco’s successors in title if it is to proceed with the proposed sale lawfully.

HMRC should also be interested in taking the matter up with Croydon, as it appears HMRC (or rather their predecessors Inland Revenue) waived a large amount of death duties in reliance on the collection being given to Croydon and made publicly accessible in the borough.

The council also has the Arts Council to contend with. They have just issued a statement 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. We would welcome a dialogue with Croydon Council and other stakeholders and seek an approach that would retain access to these important objects for the people of Croydon as intended by the original acquisition.”

The Croydon Citizen’s poll on the Riesco controversy closes on Monday, 8th July. Read Councillor Pollard’s case and Sarah Jones’ counterargument here and cast your vote.

David White

David White

David lives in Park Hill, Croydon. Until his recent retirement he was a solicitor specialising in elderly client matters. He is a member of the Labour Party.

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  • Liz Sheppard-Jones

    I am aware that previous debates on this subject have been criticised for ‘intellectual paucity’. So I hope to avoid further such criticism by quoting here the future Nobel prize-winning genius of Dr Leonard Hofstadter : ‘SCHOOL!’

    Nice work, David White, and thank-you. It’s helpful to know the law.

    • Anne Giles

      I wonder whether a Lincoln’s Inn solicitor might disagree?

      • Anthony Miller

        Spoken like Hilda Rumpole

        • Anne Giles

          : -)

          • Terry Coleman

            She who must be obeyed!

          • Anne Giles

            Too right!!

  • Terry Coleman

    Here’s a spot more intellectual paucity, if I may make so bold:

    I understand that some of the collection has been sold off within the last thirty
    years or so already, without the great fuss that surrounds the current proposal.
    If this is the case it must surely give to council upper hand on the issue, by
    way of precedent.

    Who am I and what do I know? Just an old Bang ‘ole boy from North of the Borough with a modicum of common sense and a gut feeling that council is correct on the proposed sale.

    • Anthony Miller

      No Freedom of Information in those days. There’s a reason Tony Blair describes the legislation as the worst mistake he ever made.

      The whole collection is worth somewhere in the region of £230 million. I imagine if you really wanted to cash it in then the Arts Council’s £7million would be peanuts. Sell another 5-10 items?

      Never mind refurbishing the Fairfield Halls. You could build the Fairfield Halls all over again if you liquified enough of the Riesco collection. MI6′s
      headquarters at Vauxhall Cross
      completed only cost £152.6
      million. Okay that was 1994 but GCHQ only cost £337 million including all the fittings. The financial incentive to cash it in is huge and whatever the Inland Revenue might demand back in tax relief …well, it’s doubtful they would and is it going to be inflation adjusted for 1958……… I think not.

      The central question is can the council get a formal release from Mr Riesco’s successors in title? Without it I wonder if a major auction house would be willing to help them sell it? A question of ownership that’s not sorted well …they dont want to get done for theft?

      Also yes, if the previous parts of the collection were sold without full legal documentation there’s a theoretical possibility their new owners could be forced to return them …except of course they’d want their money back so that is unlikely to happen. But it could be awkward. Still if one of the Reisco descendents chose to be malicious? Probably the council should make sure it is covered for the previous sales too…

      There’s also the question of have they gone through the proper legal governmental proceedures for such a massive disposal. Surely there should be a public consultation on a sale of this size or they risk Judicial Review …or at least a slap over the wrist from the toothless Council Ombudsman?

      • Anne Giles

        Who exactly is paying for the Judicial Review, might I politely ask?

        • Anthony Miller

          Someone who likes pottery? I didn’t say there would be one I said you are open to one. Less than two months is an unusually short timeframe to make such a decision about such a large disposal in. The Local Government Ombudsman for plebs who cant afford Judicial Review is free. However, once the items are sold it’s all kind of academic, isn’t it? Such risks could be avoided by having a proper public consultation

      • Terry Coleman

        A jolly fine exposition old chap. no fear of lex parsimoniae here then.

    • Anne Giles

      Thanks Terry. I, too, believe they are correct. I shall be extremely glad and relieved once the sale goes ahead and people stop going on and on and on about it. I love the Fairfield Halls and want it to be refurbished. Also – I cannot afford another increase in Council Tax, which would almost certainly happen if the Council could not sell the Riesco crockery. There is absolutely no point in hanging on to something which people will never be able to see, as the cost of insurance and security would be far too high.

      • Terry Coleman

        And thank you Anne, for your support.

  • Sean Creighton

    Well done David and for flushing out from Cllr Pollard at Monday night’s Council meeting the new line that the Council owns the collection with no strings attached. Perhaps Steve Reed MP should be asked to table a Parliamentary Question to ascertain the nature and implications of the HMRC agreement on death duties and its implications selling items. Did the Council pay tax on the previous sale of items? If so was it at the death duty rate applicable at the time? What are the tax implications now of selling items from the Collection? As readers will see in my blog comment (google: History Social Action Blog) on the Council meeting, it was stated that it was past Council policy to create a charitable trust for the Collection, but it does not seem to have been acted upon. A big question is why not, and this may need to be subject to discussion with the Charity Commission and research into its files. However, unless Council officials can find a subsequent resolution to rescind the decision, perhaps it remains Council policy. If so then it will have to go through the decision making process to rescind it. There is a further added complication of the fact that a Riesco Charitable Trust did exist for a while and was removed from the charity register. Again this needs to be explored with the Commission.

  • Susan Oliver

    Thank you, David, for taking the time to obtain these documents and for your legal analysis. Much obliged.