The High Court has ruled that four of the Harry Clarke stained glass windows in Bewley’s café on Grafton Street in Dublin form “part and parcel” of the building.
However, two of the windows are the property of the tenant and operator of the café, Mr Justice Denis McDonald said on Friday. The windows are said to be worth €1 million.
The judge was giving his decision in a dispute between the landlord, RGRE Grafton Ltd, a company of developer Johnny Ronan, and the tenant, Bewley’s Café Grafton Street (BCGS) Ltd and its subsidiary Bewley’s Ltd, in a dispute with its origins in the non-payment of rent due to difficulties created by Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns.
In 2020, BCGS transferred its interest in the windows to Bewley’s Ltd which in turn licensed BCGS to continue to use the windows. RGRE sought possession of the café premises that year over non-payment of rent, but this was resolved after mediation, leading to €749,000 being paid.
There followed a dispute in which Bewley’s sought to offset further rent payments by offering to sell the Harry Clarke windows to RGRE. Bewley’s argued the windows were never part of the property and have from time to time, subject to statutory requirements, been moved freely within the premises and are owned by it.
It said the windows were commissioned from Harry Clarke by the original tenant in the 1920s and are tenant’s fixtures.
Bewley’s previously owned the premises before it was sold in 1987 to Royal Insurance, which then leased the café back to Bewleys. Royal Insurance later sold the premises and they later ended up with the Ronan company. Ownership of the windows did not transfer during the Royal Insurance sale, Bewley’s argued.
RGRE said the windows were part and parcel of the structure sold when RGRE bought it from the previous owner. Bewley’s could not sell it what it already owned, RGRE said.
In his decision on Friday, Mr Justice McDonald said four of the windows, known as the Four Orders works, were “not only windows but also works of art”.
Case law makes no distinction between windows or doors that also have artistic merit and those that have none, and these works became part and parcel of the premises in the same way as any other window that functions as a part of the external shell of the premises, he said.
The judge was not persuaded by RGRE’s submissions regarding two windows, known as the Swan Yard works, which were moved in 1987 to a new internal wall separating the café from a new fire escape.
The Swan Yard pair, originally fitted in 1928, had in reality become light boxes within the new internal wall of the building, making them “purely mock windows”. Their removal would not have interfered in any real way with the convenient use of the café premises, he said.
In circumstances where the Swan Yard works were installed parallel to existing windows, they were properly classified as additions to the structure or fabric of the café, he said.
RGRE was entitled to an order setting aside the purported transfer of the Four Orders works from BCGS to Bewley’s Ltd, he said. However, RGRE failed to prove its case in relation to the Swan Yard works and that element of its claim must be dismissed. The defendants succeeded in establishing that the Swan Yard works constitute tenant’s fixtures and is entitled to a declaration that Bewley’s is the owner of these, he said.
The judge said he could not be influenced by concern that his decision may eventually result in the break-up of two suites of Harry Clarke’s works which can currently be viewed together in their original setting.
“As a resident of Dublin, I fully understand that many people may have that concern but it is not something that I can take into account as a judge required to decide the case on the evidence before me,” he said.
The case comes back before the judge for final orders next month.