Inside Whitehall: The art of claiming our right to view masterpieces

Worried about the high prices foreign collectors were prepared to pay, the Government launched what was known as the Conditional Exemption Tax Incentive scheme

Share

Of all the jobs you might associate with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, being a curator of some of Britain’s great art and artefacts would not be high up the list. Tax yes – Rubens no.

But oddly, that is one of their roles. From an office in HMRC’s Nottingham outpost, a small team have the job of overseeing an obscure scheme designed (in principle at least) to give the public access to more than 114,000 works of art in homes, storage facilities and bank vaults.

The scheme started with the best of intentions. Worried about the high prices foreign collectors were prepared to pay for British works of art in the 1980s, the Government launched what was known as the Conditional Exemption Tax Incentive scheme.

Under the plan, families and individuals could avoid paying tax on paintings, books, sculptures and furniture they inherited – as long as they were judged to be of “artistic, historic or scientific interest” to the country. The scheme also covered historically important buildings.

All anyone had to do was agree to provide access to the artefacts on a maximum of 28 days a year by prior agreement to someone who wanted to view them.

Since then, the number of items covered under the scheme has mushroomed. Answers to Parliamentary Questions tabled by the shadow Culture minister, Helen Goodman, reveal that there are now 115,000 items and collections with a total value likely to be in excess of £1bn. Every year, another £30m worth of goods are added to the exemptions. 

Thankfully, in the age of the internet, it is now easier to see what is there. But not much easier. The list is not on the Department of Culture’s site or that of English Heritage, but instead tucked away in a remote corner of HMRC’s. 

But when you find it – it’s a treasure trove. A total of 62 Constables, 20 or so Rembrandts, nine Picassos and 45 Stubbs come up on its rather rudimentary search engine.

And then there are the oddities. Among some of the stranger items that you can book appointments to see include a fragment of blue ribbon worn by Charles I at his execution, as well as Sir Walter Scott’s walking stick and a 1903 Mercedes.

But there are no photographs of the artefacts and some descriptions appear designed to put people off. For example, someone has got a tax exemption for seven objects described as “modern Mexican figures”. Quite what on earth they are and why they are important is impossible to tell.

To find out how widely the scheme is used I spent some time digging through the website. Some owners provide their contact details directly – while others with larger collections refer you to lawyers who deal with any requests for access.

Farrer & Co – better known as lawyers to the Queen – is one. But a call to James Carleton, a partner at the firm who is listed as the contact for over 500 artefacts, including several Reynolds, a Van Dyck and a Holbein, quickly proves it is not exacting work.

Mr Carleton, described on Farrer’s website as an adviser “on the treatment of high-value art works in tax planning and heritage taxation strategies”, said he normally got between three and five requests for viewing a year. “We do get them,” he said a little testily.

Helen Goodman, says she thinks the scheme has become a bit of a “scam” – a way for the rich to avoid paying inheritance tax on chattels with very little in the way of public scrutiny.

HMRC point out that if anyone has problems getting access to the objects on the list they will investigate.

Visit www.hmrc.gov.uk/heritage/visit.htm to see the artefacts and to plan a day out if you want to see something in person.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in hock to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before