Waterford Wedgwood pensions row puts ceramics on the block

Wedgwood Museum became liable for a £134m pension fund hole in 2009

One of the most important ceramics collections in the UK will be broken up and sold off in three months unless a public appeal can raise £2.74 million to safeguard its future.

The Wedgwood Collection in Barlaston, Staffordshire, must raise the money by November 30th after attempts to find a legal solution to a pensions dispute failed.

The collection of more than 80,000 works of art, ceramics, manuscripts, letters and pattern books records the 250- year history of the company founded by Josiah Wedgwood, the celebrated Enlightenment industrialist and innovator. Its treasures include Wedgwood's Portland Vase, the pinnacle of the 18th-century potter's art, as well as valuable paintings by George Stubbs and Reynolds.

Stephen Deuchar, chief executive of the Art Fund, the national fundraising charity which launched the appeal yesterday, said the loss of the collection would be “tragic” in cultural and heritage terms.

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“Given that the threat of dispersal through auction is real and immediate, all that adds up to an urgent cause worth supporting,” he said. “It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this collection.”

Unusually, the Wedgwood Museum became liable for a £134 million hole in the pension fund left by the Waterford Wedgwood company when it went into receivership in 2009.

Although the museum was an independent trust, five of its staff had been part of the same pension fund, making it responsible for the entire debt since it remained a solvent, albeit small, business.

Main creditor The main creditor was the Pension Protection Fund, which compensates pensioners in the event of bankruptcy and has the right to claw back funds from the assets of the bankrupt company.

After a legal challenge in December 2011, the High Court ruled that the collection could be sold to help meet the pensions shortfall, a decision upheld by the attorney general in 2012. The Art Fund said yesterday that subsequent attempts to find a legal route around the problem had failed, making a sale “inevitable”.

Begbies Traynor, the administrator, and the PPF agreed that the collection could be sold to the nation for £15.75 million provided the sale could take place by the end of November.

The creditors had nonetheless been in touch with auctioneers in the event the campaign failed, the Art Fund said.

Part of the total has been raised from public and private sources. The Heritage Lottery Fund has pledged £5 million provided the remainder can be found, while the Art Fund will provide a £1 million grant, a private trust another £1 million and two foundations have donated £150,000.

A private charitable trust has agreed to match public donations pound for pound.

Mr Deuchar said meeting the £2.74 million target would not be easy but was “doable”. He pointed to the recent appeal to safeguard Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s final self-portrait, which raised £1.4 million from 10,000 members of the public.

Victoria and Albert If the campaign succeeds, the collection will be gifted to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which would aim to preserve it in perpetuity at its current home in Staffordshire.

Wedgwood was renowned for his skills in design as well as his acute understanding of the importance of branding and marketing. He was also a zealous campaigner against the slave trade. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014