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Essex County Council "Hidden treasure trove" of heritage worth £14m

By Brentwood Gazette  |  Posted: September 18, 2012

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EXPENSIVE paintings, works of art and public records worth more than £14 million are being "held in trust" by Essex County Council.

The Chronicle has been passed a list of 91 so-called heritage assets held by the authority, worth a combined £14,311,599.

The majority of this sum, £9,371,479, is the value of the documents held in the archives at the Essex Record Office, in Wharf Road, Chelmsford, while much of the remainder relates to paintings of historical figures and the countryside.

The most expensive portrait is one of the aristocratic Barrett family, worth £2.5 million.

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Other costly paintings include one of King James II, worth £500,000, and another depicting the landing of Queen Charlotte at Harwich in 1761, worth £150,000.

The list also reveals how the council has in its possession a number of portraits of more modest value, including one of a "fashionable music party" worth £30,000, a bearded man wearing a ruff and fur worth £10,000, and even one of Dutch peasants seated drinking at £12,000.

Other assets held by the authority include Alderford Mill, a watermill located near Sible Hedingham, worth £61,020.56, and the Martello Tower at Jaywick, valued at £45,838.60.

The list was obtained by Brentwood Tory borough councillor Russell Quirk, using the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr Quirk, who has long been critical of the way that County Hall is run, has previously used FoI legislation to uncover how the council spent £311,888 on chauffeur-driven cars between April 2009 and April 2012.

Mr Quirk said: "It looks like, while potholes go unfilled and lollipop ladies are dispensed with, Essex County Council continues to preside over a veritable Aladdin's cave of swag that is reminiscent of a healthy outing at Sotheby's.

"It begs the question as to why £14 million of art and luxury trinkets are justified as being held on the public's behalf and, more to the point, where this treasure trove is currently stored.

"I have visited County Hall on many occasions and do not recall any of it being on public display.

"If consigned to dusty storage cupboards, then this extravagance is even less justifiable."

A spokesman for the TaxPayers' Alliance said: "While councils may be unable to sell donated portraits they shouldn't be kept locked away.

"Either art should be on display for residents to enjoy or loaned out to galleries to make best use of their value.

"With budgets tight, councils must consider whether they need to keep hold of such a large art collection, and they should not ignore the price they would fetch if they were sold."

Essex County Council refused to give the Chronicle details of the artist of each painting, the year it was painted, where it is located and whether it is on view to the public.

Instead, the authority issued a brief statement, which read: "Essex County Council does not acquire or hold the paintings as an investment opportunity.

"All paintings are held in trust for the county and the residents, which is why the paintings can be viewed by the public by appointment, if they are not on display in a public area.

"All artworks have been insured as a matter of course and are periodically valued. The vast majority of the paintings listed were either donated or bequeathed to Essex County Council or the Essex Record Office."

A separate, "personal statement" from David Finch, the deputy leader and treasury boss of the Conservative-run council, said: "Nearly all of our art collection was donated to us – we'd be damned by Russell Quirk if we sold it and damned by him if we keep it, but this is all part of his attempts to get his own cheap publicity."

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