Art list to shed light on 'hidden' treasures

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ART TREASURES which have been exempted from inheritance tax will be made more accessible to the public, by the publication of a list on computer disk, the Inland Revenue said yesterday.

Any member of the public may then obtain the list and, in theory at least, make arrangements to see these works of art.

The move came after criticism by Sir John Bourn, Comptroller and Auditor General, earlier this week, of the Revenue's failure to ensure that the public could see the treasures. A list of the works is kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and in equivalent institutions in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. However, the location of many works is given in only general terms such as the South of England or Scotland.

In order to see the treasures application must generally be made to solicitors, or agents, often in writing. Some insist that 21 days, or some other period of notice be given, before the treasures may be viewed.

However, some of the works of art are so inadequately described on the list that no one could possibly know if the article might be of interest to them. For example, Hewarts of Castle Douglas, Kirkcudbrightshire, are agents for someone who owns 'a figure of Christ with hands corded together, carved in ivory, 6 3/4 ins high on a black marble column 16 1/2 ins high'. No clue is given as to the date of the artefact, who might have carved it, or what sort of workmanship it was - or indeed why it is worth giving a rebate of inheritance tax on it. In the same way the reader is left clueless about 'a pair of white marble recumbent snarling lions on limestone plinths, 60in long', which may be seen by application to an agent in Lincoln's Inn, London.

The Victoria and Albert Museum and the other libraries holding the list of tax exempt treasures are not responsible for the inadequate descriptions which are supplied to them by the Inland Revenue. The libraries simply hold the information that is supplied, much of which is out of date.

Among the many thousands of items on the list, which are worth more than pounds 600m, is some white and gilt furniture upholstered in silk belonging to Lord Brabourne Knatchbull. The furniture which consists of four large sofas, four armchairs and 12 single chairs, is housed in Kensington Palace. Members of the public who wish to see the furniture are advised to call Mrs R Gell on 071 937 9561 to make arrangements. When the Independent called a member of the palace staff said Mrs Gell had not worked there for years.

Nevertheless the Knatchbull sofas and chairs may be seen during the normal opening hours of Kensington Palace. And the rest of the Knatchbull Collection, which consists mostly of portraits, can be seen at County Hall, Maidstone, Kent and a number of places nearby. However, access to many of the tax-exempt treasures appears to be under the control of Bond Street dealers or agents.

The list of tax exempt treasures will be computerised by the middle of next year, Stephen Dorrell, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, told the Commons yesterday. He said computerisation would overcome the problem of there being no index to the list. It will also be audited selectively each year and any breaches of undertakings to preserve the items will lead to an inheritance tax charge.