MoD faces flak over missing artworks

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The Independent Online
Officials at the Ministry of Defence were hauled over the coals yesterday for their lackadaisical attitude towards the paintings and other works of art that adorn their Whitehall offices and military bases.

In a savage report, the Commons Public Accounts Committee tore into the mandarins, saying it believed that "nobody would be as careless with their own pictures as the Ministry of Defence have been with these publicly owned works of art".

The MPs on the Tory-dominated committee said they were "concerned about the failure of stewardship - the failure to apply principles that people would regard as common sense, to their responsibilities as public servants". The criticism followed a damning study by the National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog, which found that works of art had been leaving MoD buildings by the lorry-load, with no one seeming to know where they were going.

Ministry staff, the NAO said, have been able to locate just 15 of 205 valuable pictures that have been missing for a number of years from the walls of military barracks, officers' messes and office buildings.

One of the missing prints was taken in 1991 from the ministry flat of Tom King, then Secretary of State, and has not been recovered. Of the MoD's inventory of 900 works of art, the watchdog said that 190 were missing.

According to the MoD police 23 pictures have been stolen over the years. In one case, four former Territorial officers put the artwork, Richmond Hill in the Summer, painted in 1862 by Jasper Francis Cropsey, up for sale through Bonhams, the London auctioneers. It was valued at pounds 400,000 but just before the auction their commanding officer stepped in and contacted solicitors to block the sale.

A portrait on loan from the National Army Museum, An Officer of the 28th Foot (artist unknown), disappeared when the quartermaster general's offices were relocated from London to Andover in 1992. MoD police did not investigate the loss until 1994 and are still looking for it. In 1991, the ministry listed as missing a fine print called View of the Boardroom of the Admiralty, by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin - which was actually hanging in the Admiralty boardroom.

Officers' houses, which have aroused political controversy for their sumptuous decor, have also benefited from the ministry's largess with its art collection. Ten prints were transferred without government consent to Hill Top House, Korbecke, in Germany, an official staff residence. Five prints have gone missing and the Government's curators are looking at interior photographs of the house to see if they were left behind on the walls.

MPs said they "considered it very unsatisfactory that the department managed to lose so many works of art", and accused officers, especially some loan holders, of irresponsibility. The committee said it wanted firm action against those who "abuse the trust placed in them". It was unacceptable that the MoD had not kept an inventory.