US collector threatens to destroy British polar relics

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The Independent Online

Culture secretary Chris Smith is taking emergency steps to protect two important relics from British polar exploration history because an American collector is threatening to destroy them.

The items are two handmade silk flags taken by Ernest Shackleton and Captain Robert Falcon Scott to the Antarctic before the First World War. One is Scott's sledging flag from the fatal 1910-1912 expedition to the South Pole, and the other a Royal Standard from Shackleton's abortive 1914 expedition.

Now Florida-based collector Neil Silverman is threatening to cut both flags into pieces in protest against the British Government's blocking of their export to the States.

Mr Silverman has been the owner of the items since buying them last September at a London auction. But he was shocked when the British Government blocked an export licence to give the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich a chance to save the flags for the nation.

Mr Silverman, from Fort Lauderdale, has claimed no one told him of the government's powers. Now he has told the Wall Street Journal he will not sell them, even though the museum has just secured the £100,000 needed to match his bid. "I'd rather cut them into one-inch squares," he said. "No one told me this could happen." Mr Smith has ordered his officials to scour the rule books to find a way toprotect the flags.

Scott's sledging flag was flown during his doomed attempt to reach the South Pole in 1910. He completed the prodigious journey only to discover that the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, had beaten him to it by one month.

Desperately disappointed, he set off on the return journey in which the entire party died.

Shackleton's Royal Standard was presented to him by Queen Alexandra in 1914 before he set off for the South Pole on board the Endurance. He had almost made it in 1909, but this expedition, too, was to fail as his ship was crushed in the ice. He and five others then set out on a perilous, 800-mile journey to relieve his crew.

Intransigence from foreign buyers is rare as they are not allowed to re-apply for an export licence for 10 years if matching funding is found and they refuse to sell.

David Spence, exhibitions director at the National Maritime Museum, said they hoped to persuade Mr Silverman the items should remain in Britain.

"We're delighted that we have been able to raise the money," he said. "We understand that, as a collector, he feels very strongly, as we do, about how important these things are. They are tremendously important national icons and stand for the spirit of that particular age. But we feel it would be wonderful if the general public could see them."