Rise and fall of the British Empire museum
As the scale of unethical disposals emerges, who knew what?
By Gareth Harris. Museums, Issue 227, September 2011
Published online: 03 September 2011
When the director of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum was dismissed earlier this year, the chairman of the Bristol-based museum’s trustees, Sir Neil Cossons, gave as the reason “the unauthorised disposal of museum objects”, and the director’s “abuse of his position”.
According to Cossons, the trustees fired Gareth Griffiths in February and immediately called in the Avon and Somerset police. In March, the British publication, Museums Journal, reported that two items from the collection were available on the open market. One month later, New Zealand magazine, Listener, reported that four items had passed through the hands of a London dealer.
Further research now reveals that at least 150 items left the Bristol museum’s collection, taken away for sale by ethnographic art dealer Douglas Barrett. In addition, another police investigation, this time by the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police, had started in July 2010, having received information from the Commonwealth Institute, which gave around 11,800 items to the museum (BECM) in 2003.
Barrett says that he has done nothing wrong, and that he selected the objects openly from the stores with Griffiths, and paid £115,000 in three installments to the museum for some of the pieces. Barrett is also adamant that at least some of the trustees were aware of the transactions. “I wrote cheques to the museum and not to Gareth Griffiths,” he told us. “These payments must have gone through the museum’s accounts department. How can this have gone unnoticed by the board of trustees? I was selecting items in broad daylight in the presence of museum staff.”
Cossons, however, said that the trustees have been “trying to put together the pieces of this for some time. We have a pretty good idea of who is behind all this, but for obvious reasons we can’t say too much: we are especially concerned not to prejudice the outcome of the police enquiries.”
The museum was opened in 2002 by HRH the Princess Royal to “preserve, explore and study Britain’s cultural heritage associated with the former Empire and today’s Commonwealth”. High-profile visitors include the US politician Jesse Jackson in 2007. It has a collection of 553,000 items, including the items from the Commonwealth Institute’s collection (The Commonwealth Institute, which grew out of the Victorian-era Imperial Institute, has since become the Commonwealth Education Trust [CET]). Around 250 items on loan to the Commonwealth Institute from the Royal Collection, which includes gifts presented to members of the Royal Family as they toured the colonies and dominions and then the Commonwealth, were also transferred to BECM.
The collections were displayed in a wing of Bristol’s historic Temple Meads station, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and renovated at a cost of £8m. A series of high-profile shows ensued including “Breaking the Chains”, an exploration of the transatlantic slave trade, which was nominated for the UK Art Fund prize in 2008. The institution was also nominated for the European Museum of the Year in 2004.
But in 2008 financial difficulties forced the Bristol museum to close to the public. The objects remained in store, in situ, while the trustees investigated ways of reopening the museum, including a move to London.
The first warnings
Suspicions that objects might be coming on to the market were raised by Ken Hall, curator at the Christchurch Art Gallery in New Zealand, and Jenny Harper, who is the gallery’s director. Hall was told about a bronze statuette in Barrett’s inventory that might be suitable for Christchurch’s collection, but following research it appeared to be very similar to a sculpture in the BECM collection.
On a visit to England in October 2009, Harper went to look at the statuette, which was on show in the window of Barrett’s gallery. The sculpture depicts John Robert Godley, the founder of Canterbury province in New Zealand. Barrett said that the piece was by pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner (although this attribution is disputed). According to Harper, it was priced at £35,000, although Barrett says £15,000. When Harper expressed interest in the piece: “Barrett was adamant that he could not disclose the vendor.” Harper decided not to pursue a sale as “proper legal title could not be established”.
Because Harper and Hall believed the statue might be the one given by the people of Canterbury to the Imperial Institute in 1939, she contacted both the Commonwealth Education Trust (CET) and BECM. “I emailed Gareth Griffiths to alert him to the sale and the probable provenance and to [express] our general interest if it were surplus to [the museum’s] requirements,” she told us. Griffiths responded on behalf of the museum in February 2010 stating: “We do not have a record of the statuette.”
Shortly afterwards, Harper became aware of the concerns of a former colleague about the whereabouts of a carved Maori model storehouse (pataka) made by Jacob Heberley, which was a gift to Edward VII on his 1902 coronation. In August 2010, Harper wrote to Cossons, as chairman of BECM, to reiterate her interest in the Godley statuette, and then again in January 2011 expressing her concerns “with a heavy professional heart” that BECM had been carrying out “unfortunate deaccessioning” of objects for sale. One month later, the trustees dismissed the director and called in the Avon and Somerset police.
The Art Newspaper has learned that London art dealer Michael Graham-Stewart was also worried. He told us that he informed Cossons in April 2010 that “hundreds of the Commonwealth Institute pieces (ethnographic/oriental objects and paintings, etc) had been sold by the director. The value is in the provenance of these Commonwealth Institute items because a lot of them were specific gifts for specific people at specific times,” said Graham-Stewart.
The Commonwealth Education Trust approached the Metropolitan Police, whose Art and Antiques Unit began an investigation in July 2010. It concluded that they had found no evidence of criminal activity and the matter was a civil dispute between the parties involved.
In a Met report of August 2010, Barrett said that he had gone through the museum collection with Griffiths, taking away around 150 items, including the statuette of Godley and the pataka, as well as a carved Maori piece known as the Buller panel (these three objects were returned to the museum).
The police report also revealed that “Barrett was informed by Griffiths that the items were owned by [the museum] but had been gifted by the Commonwealth Institute. [Griffiths] further told Barrett that as the museum was a private charity they were entitled to sell them.” It states that Griffiths told Barrett that he was not to tell anyone about the provenance of the pieces as it “could be politically embarrassing that the museum was selling the items”.
Griffiths, meanwhile, released a statement through his solicitors in March 2011 saying that “any objects were disposed of with the knowledge and agreement of the trustees and the receipts fully audited. Any suggestion that our client has profited from the disposal will be vigorously defended.”
The Metropolitan police, meanwhile, were keen to find out what had happened to the money paid by Barrett for the objects taken. The police reported that Cossons initially told them that, to his knowledge, no cheques had been received for the sale of any objects, but said he needed to check with his finance department. However (presumably following these checks), he revised his statement on 23 July 2010, telling the Art and Antiques Unit that there was a “contractual agreement in place giving BECM title over the pieces and confirming that BECM had received £115,000 from the sale of some objects”.
Cossons, representing the trustees, reiterates that the disposals were unauthorised. He told Listener magazine that the museum’s trustees only approved the sale of items of low value from the museum’s handling collection (mainly surplus educational material) to Barrett, not from the core, accessioned collection. In the middle of last year, the Commonwealth Education Trust was also told by the museum that the trustees “are aware of and have approved of the disposal of some duplicate books, educational materials, and furniture”.
But the sale of a valuable 19th-century Maori pare (wooden panel), raises questions. According to Listener, it passed through Barrett’s hands along a chain of sellers, including auctioneers Moore Allen and Innocent of Norcote, near Cheltenham, and the private Sydney Museum of Primitive Art. The intricately carved item was spotted in a Dunbar Sloane auction catalogue in September by Ken Hall, the Christchurch Art Gallery’s curator. A spokesman for the Auckland-based auction house reportedly said: “[The panel] came to us from an overseas museum who were the vendors.”
The pare was sold to a New Zealand private buyer for $32,000 on 14 September 2010, prompting Chris Finlayson, New Zealand’s Minister for Arts Culture and Heritage, to write to the Department of Culture Media and Sport in London, expressing concerns that “objects of New Zealand provenance were not offered back to the original donors prior to their disposal”. Andrew Gillespie, the private secretary to Finlayson, told us that Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture, confirmed that the pare had been the subject of an unauthorised sale. But, when the CET approached BECM asking how the pare panel came to be on sale in Auckland, the museum’s lawyers replied in October 2010 that the trustees “were aware of and approved the disposal of the Maori pare to Mr Barrett”.
Andrew Baines, an advisor to the CET, said that the trust is still waiting for an answer from the museum to its next question: “When were [the museum’s trustees] made aware of this and when was such approval given?”
According to Cossons, “the apparent inconsistencies in statements, of course, all emanate from the period when we still had a director [Griffiths].” He added: “We have had excellent support from New Zealand” and said the museum is working with the Attorney General to secure the return of the pare. “Our ultimate objective in this instance is to see it placed in a public collection in New Zealand.”
He also questioned the motives of the CET. “We are aware that the Commonwealth Education Trust has been pursuing this matter. But what is not clear is their locus. They transferred the collections to BECM by Deed of Gift in 2002-03. Nor do we understand their objectives.” He added that BECM was due to begin an independent audit of its collections on 29 August, to be completed by Christmas.
The museum professionals The Art Newspaper consulted suggested that the disposal fell far short of the UK’s current ethical guidelines. But it is much less clear if any laws have actually been broken. Avon and Somerset Police say the investigation is ongoing, while we understand three complaints have been lodged with the Charity Commission for England and Wales. A spokeswoman for the commission confirmed this, and added that the trustees have also reported the “alleged misappropriation of charitable assets”. It is now assessing the complaints.
As we went to press, The Art Newspaper learned that BECM’s London plans have been shelved. An interim chief executive, John Mott, with a business background has been appointed, with a brief, said Cossons, “to protect and develop our income and to ensure the financial security of the charity while we examine options for the future of the museum and its collections”.
The objects key to this tale
In August 2010, Neil Cossons, chairman of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum’s (BECM) trustees, emailed photographs of the Godley statuette, the pataka storehouse and the Buller panel to the Metropolitan Police, showing them back in the museum stores. According to art dealer Douglas Barrett, the museum’s director, Gareth Griffiths, asked for the Godley statuette (right, top) back, citing a “problem”. The Royal Collection also wrote to Barrett about the pataka it had loaned to the Commonwealth Institute, which Barrett then returned to BECM. The Buller panel was also returned. Barrett says he has not received compensation from BECM.
We understand that four more bronze statuettes from the Imperial Institute’s collection of “Empire Builders” series, to which the Godley statuette belonged, were consigned to auction at the Donnington Priory salerooms of Dreweatts on 28 November 2007 (lots 19-22). These pieces were identified as Captain James Cook (sold for £2,151 with buyer’s premium), Major General Clive (£1,195), Lord Lugard (£621) and Sir James Brooke (£1,015). The Lugard and Brooke statuettes were by the sculptor Herbert Cawood. The Cook was cast from the original plaster maquette by John Tweed, presented by the artist to the Imperial Institute in 1933. No provenance was offered for any of the items. “The vendor on the system was not the museum… but a private individual,” said Dreweatts.
“I have no hesitation in saying that these four statuettes were from the Commonwealth Institute’s collection that went to BECM,” said Katherine Prior, a freelance museum consultant at BECM from 1997 to 2006. Another “Empire Builder” statuette of Count Mahé de Labourdonnais by Cawood was sold for £7,200 with buyer’s premium at Bonhams London on 2 September 2008 with no provenance. “Again, I believe this came from the Commonwealth Institute’s collection,” said Prior. Bonhams said that virtually all bronzes of this sort are produced in large editions and that, as far as they are aware, there is no link with the BECM collection.
BECM’s Maori pare (right, middle, circled), on display at the Imperial Institute, sold in New Zealand in 2010.
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