The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge organised the show of 130 works, including paintings by Turner and Constable, which would be liable for inheritance tax if they were not available to the public for a limited period each year.
Owners' complaints that securing their homes to allow viewing is too costly, combined with their threats to sell abroad, prompted the ex- hibition, entitled: "In The Public Eye: Treasures from Collections in the East of England".
Last night the broadcaster and comedian Mark Thomas, who has been campaigning for four years to force the owners of tax-exempt art to open their homes to the public, dismissed the exhibition as a "PR stunt" designed to soften government regulations on displaying tax-exempt art.
The Government has tightened the rules on how owners display their tax- exempt possessions because of Mr Thomas's campaign on his Channel 4 television series. Previously, the list of works was never published and few owners made their works available to the public.
Defenders of the scheme claim it stops works being sold overseas but admit it has sometimes been abused. In one case a sports car on the list was taken overseas and crashed by its owner. Some owners listed their works as being owned by other people or required proof that visitors were art students before allowing them in.
As part of his campaign, Mr Thomas arranged for 30 people dressed as pantomime animals and pieces of fruit to see a Gainsborough owned by Sir Evelyn de Rothschild. When they then all applied to see the other 300 objects Sir Evelyn had on the exempt list he took the works off the list and paid the tax due on them.
"The Fitzwilliam exhibition is a PR stunt designed to lessen the impact of the changes coming from the Government," Mr Thomas said. "We have been accused of class war and the politics of envy in trying to get access to this tax-exempt art. In fact, the class war is mainly being fought by the owners of stately homes. They voluntarily made a deal to let people see this stuff. If they don't let people see it now, it doesn't make any difference if it is sold abroad. We still won't see it."
The Earl of Leicester, president of the Historic Houses Association, has been fighting the Government's changed regulations and, with the Fitzwilliam Museum, has brought together 130 works, including paintings by Turner and Constable. Yesterday, however, the museum confirmed Mr Thomas's claim that not all the works on display are on the tax-exempt list.
Alan Howarth, the Arts minister, visited the exhibition yesterday and said he was keen to encourage other museums to follow suit. "The museums get a first-class crowd-puller, the owners satisfy their obligations under law and the public get to view splendid works of art, which hitherto have been virtually impossible to see."
A total of 20,900 works on the list are kept in private hands. The 1998 Finance Act changed the rules, allowing private owners to offer viewings by prior appointment and for the first time said works had to be made available to the public, without an appointment, for between five and 25 days a year.The Government is still deciding what to do about buildings that are tax-exempt under the scheme.Reuse content