Paintings at risk as Bishop Auckland deal falters

14 December 2011

by staff reporters

CHURCH officials are working des­perately to revive a £15-million deal to safeguard the future of the 12 Zur­barán paintings at Auckland Castle, Co. Durham.

Jonathan Ruffer, who offered to pay £15 million to the Church Commissioners to keep the paintings in the north-east (News, 1 April), an­nounced last week that he was withdrawing his offer.

Mr Ruffer, an investment manager in the City of London, who grew up in Stokesley, near Middlesbrough, blamed “insurmountable” conditions that had been placed on the deal by the Church Commissioners.

Writing in the Church Times, Mr Ruffer describes the First Church Es­tates Commissioner, Andreas Whit­tam Smith, and the Commissioners’ Secretary, Andrew Brown, as “decent men who have gone wrong”.

The Church Commissioners have declined to comment in detail on Mr Ruffer’s charges. However, in a letter to Mr Ruffer, sent on Wednesday and seen by the Church Times, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Tony Baldry MP, writes: “We all hope that the matter is not irretrievable, and that we can press on as planned. . .

“I believe all are committed to achieve the end result that is desired, and I know the Church Commis­sioners are continuing to work to resolve the outstanding issues. They cannot, however, wave a ‘magic wand’ and bring it all together.”

The original offer from Mr Ruffer promised an unexpected boon to Bishop Auckland, a struggling town in the north-east. As part of the wider deal, Auckland Castle, the historical home of the bishops of Durham, would be transferred to a new trust to allow public access to the 13 paintings, which depict Jacob and his sons, 12 of them by the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán. (One is a later copy.) A further £1 million was offered by Lord Rothschild, a former chairman of the Arts Council.

Mr Ruffer became chairman of the Auckland Castle Project, which was set up to oversee the regeneration of the building, a position he resigned from last week. He said that he had been forced to withdraw his offer because of the conditions imposed by the Commissioners.

According to Mr Ruffer, the deal breakers are these:

• tying the castle deal with the pro­vision of a new see house for the Bishop of Durham, and the develop­ment of land owned by the Commis­sioners near by;

• a request for the payment of a further £1.7 million for the transfer of the freehold of the Castle (even though one estimate suggests that an endow­ment of £14 million is needed to keep the building running); and

• the retention by the Commis­sioners of a significant portion of the site, needed by the new trust to generate the income needed to main­tain Auckland Castle. (The Com­­missioners say that there are three protected tenancies on the site.)

Mr Ruffer described the action by the Church Commissioners as “extra­ordinary”, saying that they had wanted to retain all the income-generating assets in the leasehold. It was, he said, “a Gruyère-cheese lease, with all the best parts missing”.

He could also not agree to a con­dition that all maintenance and upkeep for the Castle would fall upon the project, a decision he described as “absurd”, as the Scotland wing, a private block at the Castle, needed £1- million-worth of repair work. Mr Baldry wrote, however, that the Commissioners sought “to remove the liability of the building”.

Mr Ruffer has said that he still intends the £15 million to be used to benefit the people of the north-east.

The new Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Justin Welby, has set up a meeting between the Church Com­mis­sioners and Mr Ruffer, to take place next Thursday.

Bishop Welby said on Wednesday: “Both the Church Commissioners and Jonathan Ruffer are very com­mitted to trying to make this work and benefit the area. I’m very grateful that they have agreed to meet me next week to discuss the issues, and I’m hopeful that progress can be made.”


November 2010. The Church Commissioners announce they are to sell the Zurbarán paintings to raise money for ministry and mission. The Second Church Estates Commis­sioner, Tony Baldry MP, defends the move: “We have to make tough choices.”

22 February 2011. The investment manager Jonathan Ruffer shakes hands with the First Church Estates Commis­sioner, Andreas Whittam Smith, on an “uncon­ditional deal” to buy the paint­ings for £15 million.


November 2010. The Church Commissioners announce they are to sell the Zurbarán paintings to raise money for ministry and mission. The Second Church Estates Commis­sioner, Tony Baldry MP, defends the move: “We have to make tough choices.”

28 March. An email is sent to Ruffer from Andrew Brown, CEO of the Church Commissioners, announcing the deal is subject to three conditions: “The transfer of the Castle and ancillary buildings to some form of public ownership, the grant of planning consent for a new see house as a home for future Bishops of Durham, and the satisfactory grant of planning consent for a mixed use but largely residential scheme on agricultural land owned by the Commissioners nearby.”

Ruffer says he first becomes aware of the implications of these conditions in November, making it impossible for him to progress with the project.

31 March. The £15-million offer is made public. It will set up a new charit­able trust to keep the paintings in the north-east of England. Another £1- million donation is offered by the Rothschild Foundation.

5 August. The Archbishop of Canter­bury expresses his thanks to Ruffer on behalf of the Church of England in securing the future of the paintings.

3 September. Ruffer says he becomes aware of an additional £1.7 million to pay for the transfer of the freehold of Auckland Castle, which he says will kill the project stone dead. In response, Whittam Smith assures him that he would not allow the issue of the long-term ownership of the castle to impede the development of the project.

15 November. A meeting of the Auckland Castle operational board, attended by Andrew Brown and other key stakeholders, reveals significant differences of opinion on a number of issues, particularly over the leasehold of the building and incoming-generating properties on the site.

The Auckland Castle project had expected vacant possession of the properties. The Commis­sioners say it is not possible to transfer these properties for free. Rowena Hackwood, chief executive of the Auckland Castle project, says there has been a substantial moving of the goalposts by the Church Commis­sioners.

1 December. Differences of opinion remain on who receives income from rental properties on the site. Whittam Smith says it was always the Commis­sioners’ intention to step back from the project. Hackwood says that, without the Commissioners’ involvement, it would be impossible for the project to develop a business-operating model.

8 December. Ruffer announces he cannot proceed with the deal, owing to “insurmountable” conditions.

14 December. Baldry writes to Ruffer: “The Commissioners are continuing to work to resolve the outstanding issues.”

Ed Beavan

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