URGENT meetings have been taking place to secure the future of the world-renowned Wedgwood Museum collection in the wake of a High Court judgment which paves the way for it to be sold to pay off creditors.
Tristram Hunt, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, met with Culture Minister Ed Vaizey yesterday along with officials from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
It came as Potteries-born billionaire John Caudwell offered to buy the entire collection – valued at between £11.5 and £18 million – if no other solution can be found.
The Sentinel reported yesterday that the High Court in Birmingham had ruled the collection is not held by the Wedgwood Museum in trust, and can therefore be sold to pay off debts.
The Barlaston attraction went into administration last year after being hit with a £134 million claim from the Wedgwood Group Pension Plan. The Pension Protection Fund – which provides compensation for members of defined benefit pension schemes when companies have collapsed – could not accept the Wedgwood scheme because five of its 7,500 members were employees of the still-solvent museum trust.
Mr Hunt said the Attorney General would have to wait for a written transcript of Monday's judgment to see whether there are grounds for appeal, which is unlikely to arrive until the New Year.
He said: "The Minister was pretty bullish about how the collection is of national if not international significance and that everything has to be done to save it for the nation.
"We talked about the process of appeal but we also talked about what our strategy would be in terms of fund-raising if any appeal fails.
"Around the table we had the Heritage Lottery Fund, who have an £8 million investment in the museum, The Art Fund and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
"It was a good meeting but we do need to know whether there are grounds for appeal.
"If not we are getting all our ducks in a row in terms of a fund-raising strategy.
"The ideal is obviously a sustainable, long-term future for the museum at Barlaston.
"That involves a number of partners including Wedgwood owner KPS, leading national organisations, members of the Wedgwood family and also the people of Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, because it is part of their heritage."
The 10,000-piece collection includes rare ceramic pieces, such as company founder Josiah Wedgwood's copy of the famous Roman Portland Vase, paintings by Thomas Gainsborough and George Stubbs and Josiah Wedgwood's handwritten notes.
Mr Hunt added: "It is part of the soil and the history of the people of Staffordshire, but it is also about current jobs and the economy too because the museum is part of our tourism offer.
"This is not about sentimentality or nostalgia."
Meanwhile former Phones4U tycoon John Caudwell has offered to buy the collection if no other solution can be found.
The billionaire, who was born in Stoke-on-Trent but now lives near Eccleshall, said: "The first thing that strikes me is just how grossly unfair it is that a law designed to protect people in totally different circumstances is causing such vast worry and uncertainty among those who are completely blameless for a debt that may result in an important collection – and a big piece of Potteries heritage – being broken up."
He added: "I passionately believe that the collection should remain intact and in place, and available for public viewing.
"If the trustees don't find any other way of solving the issue, then I will attempt to buy the entire collection and keep it in situ and continue with public access.
"This would be subject, of course, to the outcome of any discussions with administrators, and input of the trustees.
"It is vital that such an important piece of history and heritage remains in the Potteries."
When the museum went into administration last year, administrators at Begbies Traynor sought a High Court ruling on the status of its collection.
At a three-day High Court hearing in Birmingham earlier this year, lawyers acting for the Attorney General argued the treasures could not be sold as they were held in charitable trust.
But lawyers acting for the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) said it was an asset of the company and could therefore be sold to pay off creditors.
Administrators Bob Young and Steve Currie, from Begbies Traynor's Caverswall office, said the decision in favour of the PPF does not necessarily mean "the end of the road" for the museum.
Mr Currie said: "We need to look at all the options available. Ideally we would like to preserve the collection at Barlaston if possible.
"We will wait and see whether the Attorney General decides to appeal before we can plan a route forward, but we will work with all the stakeholders to see if there is a solution that can keep the collection at Barlaston."
Mr Currie and Mr Young said that although they are obliged to raise money to the value of the collection for distribution to creditors, they would try to do that without selling the collection, perhaps by way of a three-year Creditors' Voluntary Arrangement.
If the collection does have to be sold, it could go to benefactors who would allow it remain where it is.
Mr Currie added: "It is not the end of the road at all."
Mr Young stressed that the company and the collection would continue with the protection of administration for the time being and that there were no immediate plans to close the museum, which continues to be open to the general public.
A spokesman for the Wedgwood Group Pension Plan said: "The pension trustees would like to highlight that they were under a legal obligation to seek to clarify the ownership of the museum collection. "While it is regrettable that the museum did not take the appropriate action to separate the collection itself from the museum's liabilities to the pension plan, the pension trustees are pleased that the ownership of the collection has been clarified.
"Given the size of the deficit of the plan, unless very substantial sums are recovered from the museum's collection or other sources, it is likely that the plan will move towards transferring to the Pension Protection Fund so that members can benefit from the compensation it provides. "Without the steps which the plan trustees have taken in relation to the museum, members would probably not qualify for this compensation and would see even bigger reductions to their pension benefits."
Museum trustees, who described the court ruling came as a "huge disappointment", said their priority was now striving for a solution which would save the collection for the nation and keep it on display at Barlaston.
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