Tower Hamlets’ recent victory in the Court of Appeal to retain ownership of a Henry Moore sculpture, did not come easy says Aurea Kevill.
I recently visited the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and saw Henry Moore’s bronze sculpture called ‘Draped Seated Woman’, affectionately known as ‘Old Flo’. I was, however, unaware that the sculpture had been the subject of an intense dispute over its ownership.
It transpires that London County Council, (a ‘forerunner’ of the Greater London Council (GLC), bought the sculpture from Henry Moore in 1962 for £6,000 and displayed it at the Stifford Estate, Stepney (now in Tower Hamlets) until 1997 when it moved to Yorkshire Sculpture Park on long-term loan.
The dispute arose when Tower Hamlets’ former mayor decided to sell the sculpture, which is now worth £20 million. This prompted the London Borough of Bromley to make a claim of ownership for the work. The basis for Bromley’s claim was that it was the successor to the assets of London Residuary Body (LRB) – the LRB having been established to dispose of the GLC’s assets when it was dissolved in 1986.
Confused? Fortunately the High Court was not….
First the Court addressed the question of whether the sculpture was a chattel or a fixture. In doing so, it considered (i) the method and degree of the ‘annexation’ of the sculpture to the land and then (ii) the object and purpose of that ‘annexation’. As the sculpture could be (and was over the years) removed from the site, Mr Justice Norris surmised that the sculpture was an object in itself, independent of the location in which it was situated, and that the sculpture was therefore a chattel. The sculpture had been purchased under the auspices of an arts scheme and the money used to pay for it came directly from a specific annual allocation for art purchases. It wasn’t part of the land and so the expense had not been recorded as a housing cost.
The Court then dealt with who owned the sculpture; was it Tower Hamlets or had ownership stayed with the LRB and therefore belonged to Bromley? Because the sculpture was not dependent upon its location in Stepney, the Court concluded that ownership of the sculpture had remained with the LRB.
However, Tower Hamlets argued that ownership of the sculpture had passed to Tower Hamlets, by a legal concept known as ‘conversion’, and as a result Bromley could no longer assert any rights to it. Ever since the estate where the sculpture had been placed was transferred to Tower Hamlets, that council had dealt with the sculpture as if it were the legal owner; including lending it to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and sending it off for (and paying for) its restoration in 1992. As a result, the assertion by Tower Hamlets of its rights over the sculpture was inconsistent with the ownership rights claimed by Bromley.
What clinched it for Tower Hamlets however, was Bromley’s failure to assert its own rights to the sculpture, and that it had failed to bring an action to do so within the statutory time limit.
Happily for all however, Tower Hamlets’ new mayor has reversed his predecessor’s decision to sell the work as he believes the work “belongs to the people of east London and should be available locally for public enjoyment.’ Work is being done to find a suitable and safe location so that Old Flo can return to East London.
Aurea Kevill works at boutique private wealth law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP.