Inside Britain’s least-known art collection are works that should be ours to enjoy

·6-min read

A portrait hangs above a fireplace in a living room. The artist’s hand must have hardly lifted off the page as he traced the sitter’s face. It feels odd to be taking in a piece by such a renowned artist, set above family photos and trinkets.

I ask if I can take a photograph to remember it better, but the man sitting behind me in an armchair responds very politely that he’d rather I didn’t. He wasn’t a museum assistant, but a friend of the owner. They had been unable to meet me but allowed me to visit their home, tucked away in a well-heeled suburban street, on the condition that I didn’t reveal any identifying details about the work or its location.

The painting, like thousands of other objects decided to be of pre-eminent artistic interest, is listed under HMRC’s conditional exemption tax incentive (Ceti). Owners are exempt from paying inheritance or capital gains tax when pieces pass to a new owner – either as the result of a death or as a gift – so long as they look after them, keep the items in the UK and make them available for the public to view.

Art and tax make surprising bedfellows, and I wanted to find out exactly how the scheme works. It turns out that accessing the art – which includes works by Rembrandt, Rossetti, Goya, Renoir and Degas, among others – is easier in theory than practice. In a little-publicised online database, items can be searched for by category, location, artist and name of work. Descriptions range from the detailed (“A magnificent French circular ivory double mirror-case, each cover carved in relief with the Siege of the City of Love”) to the brief (“Oil painting – Man’s head”).

Contact details to arrange viewings are more often than not out of date or incorrect. Out of 25 requests I made over an eight-month period, only six resulted in viewings. A report from 2013 found similar results, with only five appointments made out of 30 inquiries. Emails bounced, contacts had to be hunted down and legal intermediaries chased. In one instance, a surprised wealth manager had no idea what the scheme was, or why she was listed as a contact for a Henry Moore sculpture.

When the requests did make it to owners, many were understandably cautious about allowing access to their work, on security grounds. To allay concerns, HMRC suggests asking visitors for identification and/or that viewings can be arranged in public spaces, rather than in private homes, leaving it to owners to arrange insurance and transport.

One solicitor asked for a “reasonable charge” (which is allowed under the terms of the scheme) of £100 to arrange a viewing of a Rembrandt, which may not be extortionate given the logistics involved, but is arguably prohibitive for the general public. On occasion, such art is displayed in Britain’s museums or galleries, but for the most part, curators aren’t keen on displacing permanent works for those on short-term loans from private collections.

When it was possible to arrange an appointment, speaking with the collectors was just as enjoyable as seeing the art itself. I arranged a viewing of a relief by Barbara Hepworth’s husband, the modernist artist Ben Nicholson. The painter had formed a long-distance friendship by correspondence with the owner, and when he died, he left her the wall-mounted sculpture with his nickname for her marked in pencil on the back of the frame. Being so physically close to the art, and by degrees of connection to the artist, is something no exhibition, no matter how expertly curated, can offer.

While not without such moments of joy, the overwhelming difficulty in accessing the art raises the question of whether the tax exemption is worth the lost revenue – an estimated £1bn over the last few decades. But the inefficiency may be attributable to the fact that the scheme was never designed with the general public in mind.

It was conceived in 1896 by the Tory government of the day after appeals from owners concerned about the integrity of their artistic collections. The previous Liberal government had introduced the death duty, a tax on the value of an estate, causing frantic landowners to give away their art in order to lower inheritance bills. As a way to keep art in the country, the Tories made any objects that might one day be taken into a national collection exempt. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the public was allowed to view items, and only in 1998 that public access became an absolute requirement.

A path from private to full public ownership of art, which would see items taken into the permanent collections of Britain’s galleries, came about in the 1940s, with the acceptance in lieu scheme, which allows inheritance tax bills to be paid for by the transfer of art (among other things) to a public institution or charity.

Over the years, both schemes would contribute to keeping the collections of Britain’s many historic buildings intact (including many open to the public as part of the National Trust), but today any overlap between the two is administrative (the same panel of experts decides which items are eligible for both schemes) or informal (a gallery that takes a piece on short-term loan may suggest that they’d one day like to own a piece permanently and put it forward for the acceptance in lieu scheme.)

One of the most wonderful things about cultural life in the UK is the democratisation of art – rich or poor, anyone can walk through the doors of any public gallery and gaze at a masterpiece. Any incentive to allow the nation to see works of art that would otherwise be reserved for a few is something to be encouraged further, but it seems as if the Ceti isn’t living up to its promise. If collectors are sceptical about increasing access to their collections then it has to be asked whether we should be subsidising their ownership.

For those who want to share their work with the public, the Treasury and the government can better support owners by updating and promoting the scheme, arranging exhibitions and, in the long term, encouraging pieces to be bought for permanent display in galleries up and down the country. Until then, it’s uncertain whether the scheme is preserving our cultural heritage or the tax bills of those fortunate enough to own such great works.

  • Kirsty Major is the Guardian’s deputy opinion editor

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