Israeli magnate bails out 'Cutty Sark' with £3m gift

Amol Rajan
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:13
Workmen continue to restore the Cutty Sark after fire nearly destroyed the ship last year
Workmen continue to restore the Cutty Sark after fire nearly destroyed the ship last year

The Cutty Sark has been saved after a £3.3m donation by a reclusive shipping magnate. Sammy Ofer, a Romanian-born Israeli who served with the Royal Navy as a young man, has provided enough money to ensure the full renovation of the 1869 clipper in Greenwich, south-east London.

The gift is the biggest single donation to the fundraising project for the ship and comes only three months after Mr Ofer gave £20m to the National Maritime Museum, itself the biggest act of cultural philanthropy by an individual in Britain.

A long-term renovation project of the historic vessel suffered a setback when it was engulfed by a fire in which flames reached 1000C in May last year.

All the wooden decks of the ship were destroyed in the short but intense blaze, while the hull timbers were badly scorched. More seriously, the iron frames supporting the woodwork were buckled and bent by the heat.

Despite £1m in donations in the month following the fire, there were mounting concerns that the fundraising project would fall through and the cutter, an embodiment of Britain's former maritime prowess, would have to be abandoned.

In response to the blaze, the Heritage Lottery Fund increased its contribution by £10m to £23m, but that still left the Cutty Sark Trust, which is overlooking the renovation, well short of its target.

That was until Mr Ofer stepped in, with a gift described by the Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, as "extremely generous and enormously appreciated".

The 86-year-old billionaire, who lives in Monaco and was ranked 226 in the Forbes world rich list last year, has ensured the project is back on course to be completed in 2010. He brokered both this deal and the donation to the National Maritime Museum with his friend Lord Sterling, a former head of P&O who is chairman of the museum.

"I am delighted that his commitment will ensure that the ship is given the future she deserves, here at the very heart of maritime Greenwich," Lord Sterling said yesterday. "Cutty Sark is a piece of history that can't be remade."

The restored clipper will "float" nine feet above the bottom of her dry berth. The space below will become a gallery open to the public and hired out for private functions. The gallery will be renamed in Mr Ofer's honour, the trust said.

Mr Ofer served in the Navy in the Mediterranean during the Second World War before building up a large shipping company. A significant proportion of his fleet operates from London.

According to Forbes, his family also has interests in banking and real estate, and other companies under his ownership have profited from soaring chemical and oil prices across the world.

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