MoD gets rocket over lost works of art

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The Independent Online

Westminster Correspondent

Works of art have been leaving Ministry of Defence buildings by the lorryload, and nobody seems to know where they have been going, according to an official report published today.

Ministry staff have been able to locate just 15 out 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 from the ministry flat of the then Secretary of State, Tom King, in 1991 and has never been recovered. Of the MoD's inventory of 900 works of art, says the study from the National Audit Office, the public finance watchdog, 190 are missing. Twenty-three pictures have been stolen over the years but the MoD police have not got anywhere with their inquiries.

This latest example of MoD mismanagement will inevitably provoke another flurry of awkward questions when officials go before the influential Commons Public Accounts Select Committee to explain themselves. The study identifies a wholesale disregard by the ministry towards its precious art portfolio. In one case highlighted by the NAO, four former Territorial officers put a painting, Richmond Hill in the Summer of 1862 by Jasper Francis Cropsey, up for sale through Bonhams, the London auctioneers. It was valued at pounds 400,000 but just before it went for auction, their commanding officer stepped in and contacted solicitors to block the sale.

Under auction rules, the auctioneer has the right to claim 20 per cent of the reserve if the work is withdrawn, so Bonhams has invoiced the officers for pounds 80,000. Meanwhile the painting has been returned to the regiment.

Pictures appear to have walked from the premises with nobody having any inkling as to their whereabouts. 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, View of the Boardroom of the Admiralty by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin. It had actually been hanging on the wall of the Admiralty boardroom in Whitehall, London. Investigations have proved fruitless. Some of the most heavily guarded buildings in the land, which require security passes to enter and are constantly manned, have lost paintings. Northumberland House, one of the most tightly controlled ministry buildings in London, has had two thefts involving 16 lithographs and pencil sketches.

MoD police interviewed all the staff, plus contractors and searched the offices from top to bottom but the lithographs have never been recovered.

Officers' houses, which have already aroused political controversy for their sumptuous decor, have also benefited from the ministry's largesse 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 now looking at interior photographs of Hill Top - which has since been sold - to see if they were left behind on the walls.

Equally worrying is that the ministry is failing to maintain pictures properly. The NAO found 18 cases of damage to paintings and frames where the authorities had not been notified. Some works had been damaged during office redecoration and others had been cleaned by office cleaners.

Over 100 paintings were found to be at risk by the NAO, either because they were hung where they ran the risk of damage or were not hung securely.

The NAO recommended better record-keeping - the ministry has no central record of works of art belonging to former units - and improved management and care for the paintings.

David Clark, Labour's defence spokesman said: "If MoD ministers can't even manage its art collection, how can we expect them to manage our defences." He promised to raise the matter in Parliament.