Art owners told to allow public access

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The Independent Online
OWNERS OF artworks who have escaped inheritance tax by promising public access to their homes are to be told they must advertise their opening hours nationally.

After years of complaints that many of the treasures remained locked away from public gaze, officials are to write to more than 700 owners demanding to know how they will ensure people learn about them. The collections include three Rodin sculptures, a Picasso, four Renoirs, twenty Constables and two Goyas. Among the owners who benefit are the Duke of Roxburghe, who recently "donated" a pounds 600,000 portrait of one of his ancestors under the scheme.

The revelation follows a report out today from the National Audit Office, which says just one in six of the works of art receives a visitor each year. Although more than 20,000 sculptures, paintings, drawings and other objects are listed on an Inland Revenue website, the proportion of works visited fell last year from one in five, the report says.

In most cases, the computerised register does not say where the artwork is kept but gives the address of an agent. Seven out of ten owners demand references before disclosing their addresses. Owners have complained that if their addresses are published they will be vulnerable to art thieves.

The audit office found one quarter of visits took more than two months to arrange and most visitors were professional researchers rather than just art lovers. One Inland Revenue agent waited three months for an appointment to see some portraits. An agent acting for the owner denied knowing about the paintings and then demanded a reference before making an appointment.

Since 1984, owners have been able to defer their 40 per cent inheritance tax in return for an undertaking to protect national heritage assets. Under the scheme, they had to make the artworks available to the public by appointment.

Stricter regulations introduced last year now make it compulsory for owners to advertise regular opening hours. They must do so through their local tourist board, on a notice board outside their home and in either Hudson's Historic Houses and Gardens or Johansens Historic Houses, Castles and Gardens.

However, the audit office found that of 31 owners who had more than 100 tax-exempt works, 25 had never received a visit. Most owners believed they were supplying enough information about their possessions and some resented the idea that they might be checked. "I have signed an undertaking. That should be sufficient," one owner told the audit office team.

A spokeswoman for the Inland Revenue said a review of all the artworks would take place this year, with owners being asked to explain their plans for regular opening hours and wider advertising. Because owners would be forced to advertise there were plans to phase out the computerised register altogether, she added.

t One of Britain's finest collections of Dutch Old Masters will be taken from its permanent home in the National Gallery in London for a tour to Southampton and Leeds, using a lottery grant of pounds 89,300 awarded yesterday. The Heritage Lottery Fund announced a further pounds 3.8m of funding for 22 projects in England and Northern Ireland, bringing the total awarded to more than pounds 1.2bn.