The Wedgwood Museum collections threatened by sale

1. Josiah Wedgwood
Vase, 1769
Stoke-on-Trent, Wedgwood Museum
Photo : Wedgwood Museum

30/10/10 – Museum - Stoke-on-Trent, Wedgwood Museum – The news seems hard to believe : an English museum, the Wedgwood, which holds one of the most important ceramic collections in the United Kingdom, is in danger of being entirely sold off to finance a pension fund.

The museum was created in the 18th century by Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the factory, who wished to assemble a collection of essential objects produced there. In 1774 he wrote : “I have often wished I had saved a single specimen of all the new articles I have made, & would now give twenty times the original value for such a collection. I am now, from thinking, and talking a little more upon this subject…resolv’d to make a beginning” [1]. His successors would pursue this policy in the 19th and 20th centuries amassing unique holdings in this domain thus retracing the entire history of Wedgwood ceramics.
A first museum opened in 1906 and in 1968 the Wedgwood family decided to separate the factory from its collections, in an attempt to preserve them and avoid having them used as an asset to be sold off in case of debt. In 1998, the museum became a charitable trust, or foundation, for the purpose of raising funds to erect a new building (ill. 2).
The Heritage Lottery Fund provided notably 5.86 million pounds and the museum was able to reopen its doors in 2008.

2. Wedgwood Museum
Photo : Wedgwood Museum

Soon afterwards, the situation changed drastically and took on what is now a nightmarish turn. In January 2009, the company was put into liquidation and was bought in March of the same year by KPS, an American investment fund which specializes notably in acquiring insolvent companies but the new owner did not take over the retirement fund corresponding to the Wegwood group, also bankrupt due to the economic crisis with a debt of 134 million pounds. We should remember that pension plans in the United Kingdom are based on a funding, not a distribution, system.
However, a law voted in 2005 and amended in 2008 provides for the creation of an emergency retirement fund, the Pension Protection Fund, which can thus take over when a company fails. To avoid seeing international firms conceal their assets, those companies which are still solvent are accountable for all the debt of their corresponding retirement fund. The Wedgwood Museum, which is not bankrupt and which employs five persons still under the pension plan (out of 7.000) is therefore considered as “the last man standing”, that is the only solvent company in the group.

As an English deputy so aptly put it : “we are facing a ludicrous situation : instead of being responsible for a pension totaling 60.000 pounds, the museum is accountable for a debt of 134 million pounds, thus endangering a collection of great value.” Obviously, no one expected the law to become this absurd as proven by the parliamentary debate organized last 19th October. The case will be settled in court, probably next January, and it will decide if the museum collections should be sold or not. Christie’s has estimated their price at 20 million pounds, thus covering barely 15% of the debt.

We spoke to the British Minister of Culture, Media and Sports asking him what he planned to do for the Wedgwood Museum [2]. Visibly embarrassed, he responded [3] that he was : “aware of the situation concerning the potential sale of the Wedgwood Collection and future of the Wedgwood Museum and is following the case closely.” He is advising the museum during this period, notably by helping it to prepare its case for the coming trial. However, he added, “we must now await the application to Court and the outcome of the Court case.”

The question on everyone’s minds is the following : what happens if the court decides to sell the museum collections ? Does the Ministry have a plan B as requested by the members of Parliament ? The answer is not really clear. It would be hard to believe that the British government cannot come up with the 20 million pounds needed to save the collections, in case the worst were to happen. Of course this is all unfolding at a moment of drastic budget cuts, up to 30%, at all of the Ministries, including Culture. We might also want to ask if eventually other museums will find themselves affected by this absurd law and its scandalous results.

Didier Rykner, samedi 30 octobre 2010


[1] This quote and much of the information were drawnn from the debate which took place on the subject on 19th October in Parliament.

[2] We would like to point out that he responded to our questions the very same day, a practice that is far different from the slow or total lack of response from the French Ministry of Culture...

[3] “The Minister for Culture is aware of the situation concerning the potential sale of the Wedgwood Collection and future of the Wedgwood Museum and is following the case closely.
-The Department has been aware of this situation since October 2009. In January 2010, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council awarded a grant to the museum to support legal costs, and the Department also gave a one-off grant of £25,000 to support operational costs. The Museum has also had support from Heritage Lottery Fund with a grant of £50,000.
· The situation was discussed during a debate between Tristram Hunt, MP for Stoke on Trent and Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture in Parliament on October 19th 2010. The Minister also met with Tristram Hunt the local MP to discuss the matter in June 2010.
· The Department, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council have worked closely to support and advise the Museum during this time – e.g. on developing a sustainable business plan, on maintaining regular visitors and making links with the wider tourist industry in the region.· The Wedgwood Museum is preparing an application to court to clarify the status of the Collection and whether it would be available to a liquidator.
· We will continue to offer our assistance but, like all concerned, we must now await the application to Court and the outcome of the Court case. »”

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in News Items : An appraisal required for the Chartres Jubé

Next article in News Items : A Degas painting stolen from a French museum found at a Sotheby’s auction