For the love of art

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What happens to valuable art collections owned by an individual which they either want to leave to beneficiaries or to charities? If the collection is of value and is left to charity, then that part of the estate that relates to the collection is exempt from Inheritance Tax (IHT). In some cases, if the charitable gifts are sufficiently large and comprise more than 10% of the estate, the Executors can take advantage of a reduced level of IHT instead of the usual 40% IHT on the taxable part of the estate.

Collections come in all shapes and sizes. I recently had the privilege of dealing with the estate of Thomas Frangenberg, whose very special and, in many ways, unique collection of conceptual and modern art was left largely to charities. It was astonishing to see Thomas’ collection for the first time, housed in his flat on the fourth floor of the Barnsbury Estate in Islington.

Except for a few individual items that were being left to named beneficiaries, the remainder of the collection was left to Tate Modern and to The Contemporary Art Society (CAS) – both registered charities. The residuary estate, broadly the flat which needed to be sold, largely went to family members, two of whom (Thomas’ brother, Andreas Frangenberg, and his sister in law, Rita Frangenberg) were the named executors.

Thomas was clearly a man of extraordinary taste and intellect. A retired professor of “The History of Art” at Leicester University, he spoke a number of languages fluently and had more than 2,000 books on Renaissance and Baroque Art. Amassed from artists, many of whom knew Thomas and who he had encouraged and mentored before they became established, the collection was on every wall, on most ceilings, stuffed into drawers and on cupboards, under the kitchen sink (literally), and even in the bathroom.

Stuart Taylor, a close friend of Thomas, had already started cataloguing the collection prior to Thomas’ death. Furthermore, Stuart seemed to know almost all the artists represented in the flat and for the best part of a year, he and I worked closely together to deal with the collection and its disposal in accordance with Thomas’ Will.

First, we needed to get a valuation and, whilst we chose a well-known West End auction house to undertake this task, it must have proved very difficult. Some pieces were by artists known to the valuers and assigned reasonable values. However, the bulk of the collection (more than 500 individual items) were not of value and assigned £50 per item to make up the valuation for probate purposes. We will never know how accurate that was. Many of the artists featured would only have been well-known to those who collected and exhibited modern conceptual art. Most members of the public would have been hard pushed to recognise those which Stuart was cataloguing.

Nevertheless, as solicitors, we needed to put a value on the collection and then exempt a large proportion of it from IHT, as it was left to charities.

Several important questions arose. Firstly, whilst the Tate and CAS worked closely together, it soon became clear that they were not interested in taking the whole collection. Could they pick and choose as a matter of law? The answer appears to be no, and if we, as solicitors, wanted to be “strictly legal” about all of this, we could have advised the Executors to simply arrange for the collection to be delivered to the two charities concerned. They could then have rejected those gifts outright or accepted them. If rejected, Andreas and Rita would have then been left with the whole collection to dispose of, and a very bad feeling that they had somehow not carried out Thomas’ wishes with regard to the collection.

So, we began the slow process of having meetings with various directors and curators from provincial museums and galleries, who CAS were in touch with, as well as with senior curators and experts from The Tate.

Having advised Andreas and Rita of their legal position, I was pleased that they instructed me to give The Tate and CAS the opportunity of selecting the artworks they wished to retain. That still left the bulk of the collection (in excess of 500 individual items) and the question of what to do with them.

“Could I put them in auction?” I asked Stuart. “No” came the reply. Most of this art has a tiny market which, if flooded by putting, say, ten Martin Creed pieces in an auction, would destroy it.

All this required a steep learning curve and Stuart’s expertise and advice. During the process, the affection and warmth for Thomas amongst all those who had been touched by him during his life became very apparent to me.

With the flat on the market to sell, we had to urgently make arrangements to store some 500 pieces of art. Storage is expensive, insurance even more so, and the uncertainties of actually realising any money made decision making almost impossible. Then, a gallant knight appeared on the scene. Philip Lindley was a close friend and colleague of Thomas’ at Leicester University. He offered to assist by introducing Andreas and Rita to a college at Cambridge University to enquire if they were interested in taking the whole of the rest of the collection.

On 31 January 2020 (an auspicious date for various reasons), Andreas, Rita, Stuart and Philip, together with many artists and friends of Thomas, were welcomed by Wolfson College in Cambridge, who have accepted, as a gift, the remainder of the collection. The artwork will be exhibited at Wolfson College until March. Philip is curating for the first five years and the collection and papers will be available for scholars and artists. There will also be a reception and celebration of Thomas and his works.

Inevitably, there was some additional legal work to undertake. A Deed of Variation varied the terms of the Will to allow the collection to go to other charities or, ultimately, to be dealt with as the Executors saw fit. A Deed of Gift has been agreed with Wolfson.

So, a happy ending. I am pretty sure that, if one believes in these things, Thomas would be raising a glass and saying cheers to his brother and sister-in-law and to Stuart who, by cataloguing and providing so much assistance to the Executors, enabled the collection to be curated and exhibited. Lastly, of course, thanks to Thomas’ old colleague, Philip Lindley, and to Wolfson College for saving the collection and making it available to all those who loved Thomas and the art he collected.