UK government's £44.3m buying spree

December 5 2014

Image of UK government's £44.3m buying spree

Picture: Arts Council

We're lucky in the UK to have something called the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) scheme. This allows those with a bill for inheritance tax to offset some of that tax by allowing the government to acquire a work of art, or an item of cultural importance. This year's AIL report has just been published, and it's well worth a read, with interesting entries for each item, from portraits by Lawrence to Lucian Freud's collection of Auerbachs.

The figure for works acquired this year is £44.3m, which is a little down on the previous year's total of £49.4m, but still significantly higher than previous years, thanks to the Chancellor's decision raise the financial cap on acquisitions. The total includes works given to the government under the new Cultural Giving scheme, which works in the same way to AIL, but doesn't afford the donor a 100% tax write off - it's partly philanthropic.

Now, I don't like to make a habit of lauding the government, but in this respect they deserve considerable praise. You often read in the press of works acquired under AIL being 'given' or 'bequeathed' to the nation by their previous owners, but it is in fact no such thing. It's a straightforward purchase by the government, with an amount of tax foregone. This year, therefore, the government spent £44.3m funding acquisitions for our national and regional museums. So next time you hear of savage cuts in the arts and heritage sector, remember that, along with the changes to allow National Lottery good cause money to be spent on objects (rather than projects), this is one of the most generous times for acquisitions ever known.

The system works very efficiently. I've recently been asked to help assess a picture offered under the AIL scheme, and not only is each case rigorously judged to see if it is of 'pre-eminence' - that is, suitable for display in a museum - but there is then a thorough investigation of the object's value. Often, and perhaps understandably, those submitting a work under the AIL scheme hope to write off more tax than the government thinks the work might be worth. 

Incidentally, I see from the report that Freud's Auerbachs have not yet been formally allocated. There was some debate here on AHN earlier about whether these should go to the Tate en masse, or be split up and given to more than one gallery. Given Tate's tendency to display on a fraction of their works, it seems to me a no brainer that the works should be more evenly distributed around the country.

Update - a reader writes:

I mentioned a while back that I thought certain collections seem to be favoured in the allocation of AIL items.  A crunching of the numbers from the reports covering the last five years now provides some interesting results.

It should be borne in mind that the figures below only include entire cases where an allocation has been confirmed: it does not include cases which consist of groups of objects split between institutions, as individual valuations are not available.

Since 2009, tax written off in AIL cases amounts to £97.74 million.  Of this total the following are the main beneficiaries:

1. The Ashmolean, Oxford  £14.97 million (15.6%)

If one considers the University of Oxford as a whole, a further £1.17 million needs to be added to this total to cover The Bodlian.

2. The National Trust  £13.63 million (14.2%)

Allocations include land. The amount is not surprising given the Trust previously accepted property without chattels and these are surrendered on a regular basis.

3. The Fitzwilliam, Cambridge   £11.51 million (12%)

4. The National Gallery, London   £5.60 million (5.9%)

5. The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh  £3.4 million (3.7%)

Probably these figures show that, as with anything concerning acquisitions, success mostly comes down to the enthusiasm and effort put in by the museum staff themselves. Whether it's buying outright or acquiring through a scheme like AIL, acquisitions take up a lot of time and paperwork, and sometimes (to be frank) this can be offputting for some museums. So, congrats to the Ashmolean for coming out top.

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