A portrait hanging above a fireplace in a living room. The artist’s hand must have barely lifted from the page as he traced the model’s face. It is strange to admire a work by such a renowned artist, placed above family photos and trinkets.
I ask if I can take a photo to better remember it, but the man sitting behind me in an armchair replies very politely that he prefers that I don’t. He was not a museum assistant, but a friend of the owner. They hadn’t been able to meet me but allowed me to visit their home, tucked away on a well-to-do 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 items deemed to be of pre-eminent artistic interest, is listed under HMRC’s (Ceti) conditional exemption tax incentive. Owners are exempt from paying inheritance or capital gains tax when coins are passed on to a new owner – either on death or as a gift – so long as they take them care, keep the items in the UK and make them available for the public to view.
Art and taxation make surprising bedfellows, and I wanted to know exactly how the scheme worked. It turns out that accessing the art – which includes works by Rembrandt, Rossetti, Goya, Renoir and Degas, among others – is easier in theory than in practice. In a low-profile online database, articles can be searched by category, location, artist and work name. Descriptions range from the detailed (“A magnificent French double circular mirror in ivory, each cover carved in relief with the Siege of the City of Love”) to the brief (“Oil Painting – Head of a Man”).
The contact details for arranging visits are most often outdated or incorrect. Out of 25 requests I made over an eight-month period, only six resulted in views. A 2013 report found similar results, with only five appointments booked out of 30 requests. Emails bounced, contacts had to be tracked down and legal intermediaries hunted down. In one case, 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 requests were passed on to owners, many were understandably cautious about accessing their work, for security reasons. To allay concerns, HMRC suggests asking visitors to identify themselves and/or that visits can be held in public spaces, rather than private homes, leaving owners to arrange insurance and transport.
A solicitor has asked for a ‘reasonable fee’ (which is allowed under the terms of the scheme) of £100 to arrange a visit from a Rembrandt, which may not be exorbitant given the logistics involved, but is arguably prohibitive for the general public. Occasionally such art is displayed in UK museums or galleries, but for the most part curators are unwilling to move permanent works to those on short-term loan to private collections.
When it was possible to arrange an appointment, talking with the collectors was just as pleasant as seeing the work itself. I arranged a tour of a relief by Barbara Hepworth’s husband, modernist artist Ben Nicholson. The painter had struck up a long-distance friendship by correspondence with the owner, and upon his death left him the wall sculpture with his nickname inscribed in pencil on the back of the frame. To be so physically close to the art, and in degrees of connection to the artist, is something that no exhibition, no matter how expert, can offer.
While not without such moments of joy, the overwhelming difficulty of accessing art raises questions as to whether the tax exemption is worth the loss of income – estimated at £1billion over the past decades. But the inefficiency can be attributed to the fact that the system was never designed with the general public in mind.
It was designed in 1896 by the Conservative government of the day following appeals from owners concerned about the integrity of their art collections. The previous Liberal government had introduced inheritance tax, a tax on the value of an estate, pushing unrestrained landowners to donate their art in order to reduce inheritance bills. In order to keep art in the country, the curators exempted all objects that might one day enter a national collection. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the public was allowed to see the articles, and it wasn’t until 1998 that public access became an absolute requirement.
A shift from private to full public ownership of art, which would see objects incorporated into the permanent collections of British galleries, occurred in the 1940s, with the Acceptance Regime instead, which makes it possible to pay inheritance tax bills by transferring art (among other things) to a public institution or charity.
Over the years, both schemes would help keep the collections of Britain’s many historic buildings intact (many of which are open to the public as part of the National Trust), but today any overlap between the two is administrative ( the same group of experts decides are eligible for both schemes) or informal (a gallery taking a piece on short-term loan may suggest that they would like to one day own a piece permanently and offer it to the acceptance scheme in place and place).
One of the most wonderful things about cultural life in the UK is the democratization of art – rich or poor, anyone can walk through the doors of any public gallery and behold a masterpiece work. Any incentive to allow the nation to see works of art that would otherwise be reserved for the few is something to be further encouraged, but it seems that Ceti is not delivering on its promises. If collectors are skeptical about improving access to their collections, then the question is whether we should subsidize their ownership.
For those who wish to share their work with the public, the Treasury and Government can better support owners by updating and promoting the curriculum, organizing exhibitions and, in the long term, encouraging the purchase of pieces for a permanent exhibition in the galleries from top to bottom. the country. Until then, it is uncertain whether the program preserves our cultural heritage or the tax bills of those lucky enough to own such great works.