Becket casket saved for nation in pounds 4.2m deal

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The Independent Culture
A 12th-century casket which may have held the remains of the martyr Thomas a Becket was saved for the nation yesterday after the Canadian newspaper magnate who bought it at auction withdrew from the purchase.

Lord Thomson of Fleet, a former owner of the Times, has relinquished his interest in the casket, known as the Becket Chasse, to the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Victoria and Albert Museum, west London, where it will go on immediate display.

Despite widespread delight, the announcement also pro-mpted criticisms. While the last-minute deal cost nearly pounds 4.2m, the casket had initially been offered to the British Museum for pounds 1.8m, but the money could not be found.

Mark Fisher, Labour's spokesman on the arts, said: "This has been a mess. We've almost certainly paid over the odds because of the incoherence of the process.

"We need to take a long clear look at the funding of and procedures for retaining important items. The Government has limped along from one crisis to the next, and it's about time they co-ordinated the work of the different bodies involved."

The National Heritage Memorial Fund paid more than pounds 3.5m towards the acquisition. It will go on display at the Victoria and Albert before being shown in Canterbury Cathedral next year, during the 14th centenary celebrations of the arrival of St Augustine in England.

Lord Rothschild, the fund's chairman, said it was delighted that Lord Thomson had made "this generous gesture ... for the benefit of the nation".

In a statement, Lord Thomson said: "The family loves the Chasse and has coveted it for many years, but our satisfaction in being the successful bidder has been marred by the realisation that the Thomson family alone would stand in the way of the Chasse belonging to and remaining in this country."

They had "sadly and with reluctance" decided the fund should purchase the casket. "The family is greatly consoled by the realisation that this wonderful and historical work is now likely to remain in this great country where it truly belongs."

A spokesperson for the National Art Collections Fund, which helped raise funds to save the casket, said it was pleased to have helped.

"It has been our ardent wish to have this important casket in the safe ownership of one of our great national museums."

And Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, said: "It is important that objects which hold such a special place in our history are retained here and are available for everyone to see and enjoy."

The Limoges casket is believed to have held the blood and bones of Becket, who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. It is set with crystals and copper engravings depicting Becket's life and death.