Last night, while wandering round a museum of dead animals, glass of wine in hand – conversation turned as it invariably does to the weighty maters of taxation and art. Not totally unexpected as the museum has some artifacts which today could not actually be collected as they are endangered, and my own parents also have some pieces which were collected on our worldly travels and today couldn’t have been brought into the country.

They also can’t sell them – so items which are somewhat valuable are equally – worthless.

Conversation drifted though, onto a little known aspect of tax law which I had heard about some years ago and that is the ability of a person who inherits a work of art, or other historic item to offset their death tax duties by permitting the public to see the item upon request. The terms and conditions are fairly relaxed – in that the item must be available to the public within reason and that it must remain within the UK.

Some might say this is a tax dodge to avoid paying death taxes, but it does seem a bit unfair to me that a person who has just inherited a family heirloom and still upset over the death of a parent could then be forced to sell that item just to pay a tax bill. Rather than selling the item to some overseas buyer, it can now remain in the UK – and also within the family.

I commented that it would be quite nice to know what it is that I, a taxpayer has the right to see – and my friend noted that somewhere on the HM Customs website is a list.

A trawl around this afternoon, and I have found it.

There seems to be three main categories – buildings and land which are open the public on set days of the year (or quite a bit in some cases), works of art which are on loan to a public venue – and the most interesting, those items which are still looked after by their owners in their own private homes.

Legally, I have a right to look at them – and all I have to do is write to the owner asking for an appointment and they have to comply – or lose their tax exemption.

OK – I was being a bit mischievous is thinking about this – but upon doing some searches on the website, there are genuinely some items which I would probably find interesting to look at had they been in a museum that I can just wander into. Maybe I will write to one or two people though asking if I can have a quick look – as some of the items are quite interesting scientific collections and clocks, which I rather like looking at.

You can do a search as well.

As an aside, a few years ago a somewhat left wing chap was bemoaning on another website about the monarch owning works of art, and I pointed out that much of it is on public display at the Queens Gallery on rotation – so the public can enjoy it. Which is in stark contrast to the Government Art Collection (GAC), which is locked away in vaults and bits loaned out to government offices which are closed to the public, or viewable on private tours.

It is an irony that it is easier to see the Monarch’s art collection than it is to see the government art collection, which is supposed to be held on behalf of the people.

The Prime Minister’s residence, 10 Downing St also has a rotating art collection, mainly to show off British talent to visitors – and it was once said that whenever Margaret Thatcher visited an art gallery, the curators would hide their best works as she actually had quite a good eye for the stuff and would invariably borrow the best works for a few months. She also installed a niche in the main hallway between the front door and the famous staircase where a rotating display of Henry Moore‘s sculptures is shown.

The Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers also houses one of the largest collections of art and memorabilia pertaining to Oliver Cromwell in the country. It also houses many other national antiques and books held in the infamous ‘long room’, including a diary of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. However, this exquisite collection is not open to the public.


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