College sale of paintings challenged

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The Independent Online
THE Charity Commission regarded a college's collection of Victorian paintings as 'indistinguishable from a pot of emulsion' when it sanctioned the sale of a Gainsborough, a Turner and a Constable, according to a critic of the sale.

Professor Jonathan Riley- Smith, Professor of History at the Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, has appealed to the Parliamentary Ombudsman against the Charity Commission's decision to sell the paintings.

They form part of the Founder's Collection at the college in Egham, Surrey, built by the philanthropist Thomas Holloway in the 1880s. The college, part of the University of London, decided in 1987 that 'in the light of a very severe financial situation' it would be prepared, if necessary, to 'realise its disposable assets'. The grounds of the appeal are that the decision causes injustice to current and future members of the college, which arises from maladministration on the part of the Charity Commission in permitting and devising the scheme.

A further complaint is that the commissioners failed to apply natural justice to objectors during the decision-making process. The paintings are John Constable's A Sketch for View on the Stour near Dedham; Thomas Gainsborough's Peasants Going to Market: Early Morning; and J M W Turner's Van Tromp going about to please his Masters, Ships at Sea, Getting a Good Wetting.

The appeal accuses the Charity Commissioners of not hearing expert opinion before it agreed to the sale. It also says the paintings were not given solely to decorate the college's main building, but were to be used for the 'benefit' of people residing in the college.

The Charity Commission 'proceeded on the basis that the Founder's Collection had been given for the purposes of decoration only, that word being construed in the narrowest possible sense. The proceeds of a sale could be applied as an endowment for refurbishment of the original buildings, and the Founder's Collection was, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from a pot of emulsion.'

The appeal says that to break up the collection by selling the paintings would damage the integrity of the whole. This question should have been considered by the commission. Nor would failure to sell cause insolvency.

No one was available for comment at the Charity Commission.

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