An event held on 24th October in the inspiring surroundings of Sotheby’s Mayfair premises provided members of the IAL and friends of Sotheby’s with a fascinating insight into the challenges and opportunities involved in caring for heritage in the 21st century UK. The seminar brought together representatives from the public and private sectors to discuss the pressing issues faced by those tasked with protecting the nation’s built and movable heritage.
Words of welcome were provided by Wendy Philips, Sotheby’s’ Deputy Chairman, UK and Ireland and IAL Director, Alexander Herman, both speakers noting the longstanding partnership between the two organisations which goes back to the foundation of the IAL in the 1990s. Indeed, it was good to see members and friends whose association with the Institute, and whose interest in art and cultural heritage law stems back almost three decades.
The importance of collaboration within the cultural sector, and of bringing together different perspectives, skills and interests in pursuit of protecting the UK’s heritage was a constant theme throughout the afternoon. The first panel focused on the concept of care – a word we are not accustomed to hearing in the legal world very frequently; indeed, perhaps not frequently enough. Clarissa Vallat, Senior Director, Sotheby’s Tax and Heritage, explored the concept with Dr Charlotte Woodhead, Assistant Professor, University of Warwick. Dr Woodhead’s forthcoming book Caring for cultural heritage in the UK: an integrated approach to legal and ethical initiatives (Cambridge University Press) is dedicated to this theme. In Dr Woodhead’s view, such care is grounded in empathy, respect and a continuing and multi-layered dialogue which recognises different perspectives and priorities. The law, in its many guises from the international to the local, plays a vital part in this process, offering protection to both the people and the property involved.
The practical realities of providing this care on a daily basis were brought into sharp focus by Charles Berkeley, owner of Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire, the UK’s oldest inhabited castle. Describing himself as a ‘custodian’ of his family’s estate which dates back to the 12th Century, Charles discussed the delicate balance his role entails. Whilst appreciating the privilege of growing up in such historic and impressive surroundings, the continuing care of the building and its collections clearly brings with it a heavy weight of responsibility. A balance must also be struck between his family’s private life and their quest to share the heritage they care for with the public. Here too, the law has a crucial role to play, encouraging (and in some cases mandating) public access in return for benefits facilitating the continued care of buildings and their contents.
The care of the historic environment, and of artworks which form part of it, provides a central theme of a new book co-written by Richard Harwood OBE KC (with Catherine Dobson and David Sawtell): Contested Heritage: Removing art from land and historic buildings (Law Brief Publishing, 2022).* How does the law protect works such as sculptures, statues and monuments which become part of land or buildings, and what issues arise when attempts are made to remove them? Richard discussed some of the topical cases covered in the book involving statues and other memorials to controversial figures from history, perhaps most notably, those with links to the slave trade in 17th and 18th century Britain.
In the final session of the afternoon, the role of the law in facilitating heritage protection was further explored by a panel featuring Anastasia Tennant, Senior Policy Adviser, Arts Council England, Anthony Misquitta, General Counsel, Victoria & Albert Museum and solicitor with Keystone Law and Ben Cowell, Director-General, Historic Houses and member of DCMS’s Heritage Council. The importance of collaboration was highlighted once again, particularly between the private and public sectors. Indeed, heritage protection was described by one panellist as “the biggest public/private partnership we have” in the UK. An overview of government policy regarding the protection of important works in private ownership (principally through the operation of tax exemption schemes) (Anastasia Tennant) was followed by an insight into an innovative V&A partnership with a private company for the care and display of a nationally significant Wedgewood collection (Anthony Misquitta). The final speaker (Ben Cowell) pondered whether the law might have become overreaching in recent times, skewing the delicate balance between private rights and the public mandate too far in favour of the latter. He cited a recent survey suggesting that support for the current heritage protection system was rather weak, with private owners facing insurmountable challenges in their attempts to maintain the heritage they care for. In a system which depends on relationships of symbiosis and collaboration, perhaps there is room for the law to offer greater flexibility.
Whether such change may be on the cards anytime soon was a discussion for another day, but the speakers certainly left the audience with much to contemplate. Overall, the message was a very positive one: whilst there are most certainly significant challenges, these are more than matched by increasing opportunities for stakeholders to come together in thoughtful and innovative ways to care for the UK’s rich and diverse heritage for generations to come.
The IAL would like to thank Sotheby’s for generously hosting the seminar and providing a reception for guests afterwards. To become a member of IAL, which gives you special access to events such as this one, as well as discounts on books and courses, see our members page.
* For a review of the book, see the latest issue of Art Antiquity and Law.