Under deals made with the Inland Revenue, owners of paintings, sculptures, antiques and other items of "heritage interest" can keep them on display at home and avoid inheritance and capital transfer taxes provided they allow the public access to view them.
In all, 704 individuals have taken advantage of this scheme: their paintings, sculptures and furniture are recorded on the Register of Conditionally Exempt Works of Art maintained by the Inland Revenue.
Some owners place items in exhibitions or loan them to houses open to the public, but access to many of the works is heavily restricted. Members of the public must consult one of only four computerised lists in Britain: in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.
The list in London's Victoria & Albert museum is not illustrated, and many owners do not give a contact telephone number. A viewing must often be organised in writing, frequently through the owner's solicitors. Some owners also charge a viewing fee.
Gordon Prentice, Labour MP for Pendle in Lancashire, has tabled an Early Day Motion condemning the scheme. He found that 63 people were granted tax exemption last year for allowing the public access to their works of art. But there is no record of how many people go to view the works.
When Mr Prentice examined the register entries for his own county, he found that three Brussels Gardens tapestries and a Beauvais 17th-century Charte de France tapestry panel could be viewed by the public "in Lancashire"; the register did not specify where or when they could be seen. They belonged to the Hon R Fermor-Hesketh at a Chelsea address whose telephone number was ex-directory.
Mr Prentice is now demanding that owners be required to publicise access arrangements. "The Government is conniving with the super-rich in granting extremely important tax concessions as a quid pro quo for 'public access' which, in most cases, I am certain, is wholly fictional," he said.
A telephone survey by the Independent on Sunday of 18 entries in the register found only two works of art that could be viewed immediately - because they are on loan to public collections. They were a Chippendale chair, on loan to the National Trust for Scotland at Drum Castle near Aberdeen, and a Picasso portrait of Lee Miller, the American photographer, on loan to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.
Despite apparently being able to view the Picasso immediately, it took two days to find its whereabouts because the information in the register was out ofdate; the picture is being rehung and will be on display from this Wednesday.
The other works of art proved more difficult to track down. A two-day search failed to elicit information about six of the entries. Seven owners required written notice of several weeks; some asked why the caller wanted to see the painting. Only two were prepared to arrange a viewing appointment over the telephone.
In some cases, owners had died or agents had been changed. The Hon Mrs Talbot from Edenbridge, now deceased, was listed as the owner of a Chippendale 18th-century card table. Neither her son nor her daughter-in-law - listed under a different telephone number from the one on the register - could say exactly where the table was, thinking it might possibly have been stolen. However, they agreed to inform us as soon as they found out. When the Independent on Sunday telephoned two weeks later we were told that it had been stolen.
Even when the register is correct, and one telephone call gets the art lover straight through to the owner, access is not always a matter of getting on the right bus and finding the house.
A Mr Barlow at Trinity College Cambridge, asked about a painting of Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, by the water-colourist Peter de Wint, politely requested dates to be arranged by letter.
"I'd be glad to show you the painting," he said, "but the reason why people are cagey is because a lot of works of art are stolen and this list gives people direct access to the places where the art is kept."
That is why many owners employ the services of a solicitor: to avoid listing their own address on the register. Many solicitors live hundreds of miles from the work of art, and are picked by owners for that very reason. That means a slow communication process between three parties.
Simon Brown, from the probate department of the solicitors Thomson, Snell and Passmor, needed a few weeks' notice to organise a visit to see Turner's The Guardianship at the Nore in Shropshire.
A Monet painting, Vetheuil, in the charge of the solicitors Gordon Dadds, was also out of the public eye, but this time it was gathering dust in storage. "It is not straightforward to get access," we were told. "There are plenty of other Monets to look at in museums really, though I'm not trying to put you off. It's just that the owner lives in Ireland."
The Inland Revenue issues guidelines to owners on how accessible a work of art should be. A work can be exhibited in a room open to the public for an agreed number of days a year, lent to a public collection for display, or viewed by appointment.
"But reasonable access clearly depends on the exact circumstances of the owners," an Inland Revenue spokesman said.Reuse content