Politics: Ministers deny great Domesday sell-off

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The Independent Online
The Government denied last night that it was planning a wholesale clear-out of state assets after the publication of a modern-day Domesday Book. Among the treasures locked away are priceless paintings. Fran Abrams discovered that ministers' wishes to show them to the public could be difficult to fulfil.

There is Isaac Newton's apple tree, a carpark at Ipswich Town Football Club and the whole of Trafalgar Square, and they all belong to you and me. They were among millions of items published in the Treasury's 546- page National Asset Register yesterday, a book many believe could serve as a huge catalogue in a state auction.

Alistair Darling, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, moved last night to deny a sell-off - worth up to pounds 300bn - was on the way but said departments would be allowed to dispose of limited numbers of assets up to pounds 100m per sale.

"Departments are, for the first time, being given an incentive to use their assets in a sensible way,' he said."But, as with all spending, the Treasury will keep an overall overview." Proceeds from such sales would be limited to no more than 3 per cent of a department's budget. "This is not a sales catalogue and there are no price tags on individual items. This is an attempt to make it easier for departments to deal with its assets more efficiently - just like businesses do."

Among items that would not be sold, and which ministers would like to see exhibited, is a breathtaking collection of art. There are paintings by LS Lowry, Augustus John, Eduardo Paolozzi, Walter Sickert, Stanley Spencer and Winston Churchill. There are bronzes by Jacob Epstein, Elisabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, so valuable that the Government will not even put a price on them. But art lovers hoping for a look may have to wait a long time.

In addition to the main collection, The Ministry of Defence holds 709 works of art, including two drawings by the architect Robert Adam, and a portrait by Joshua Reynolds.

But the whereabouts of many artefacts is unclear. A catalogue was promised in 1981, but the first of four or five volumes - the 20th-century works - was published only this year. It is not widely available, though the Department of Culture, Media and Sport allowed The Independent to look at it, and does not say where each item is held. In her introduction, Wendy Baron, head of the collection, admitted cataloguing had been arduous: the works were scattered across buildings in 300 cities worldwide.

Some works can be tracked down, though, to the offices of ministers. Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, has a total of 11 items from the collection in his office. They include an Epstein sculpture of the conductor Otto Klemperer, a Frink sculpture and a print by RB Kitaj.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, has replaced portraits in his office with modern Scottish prints and a painting by Pissarro. Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, has chosen an anonymous 17th-century portrait of Richard III and an 18th-century painting of the Duke of Marlborough.