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Who owns “Old Flo” ? 27 July 2015

“Old Flo” was the not-exactly-complimentary nickname given by the residents of  the Stifford Estate in East London to the Henry Moore statue “Draped Seated Woman”, which was placed (at considerable expense) in the centre of the Estate in 1962 by the developers, London County Council.  The estate has now been redeveloped by its current owners, Tower Hamlets BC.  The statue is temporarily in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Tower Hamlets had plans to sell it.  But is it theirs to sell ?

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This was the issue in the recent High Court case of Tower Hamlets London Borough Council v Bromley London Borough Council (in its capacity as successor to the London Residuary Body) [2015] EWHC 1954 (Ch).

The judge had to consider three questions:

1.  Was the statue a chattel or had it become part of the land and so ceased to be a chattel?  The statue rested on the ground under its own weight, which suggested that it was a chattel.  It is true that there are cases from the past in which items resting under their own weight have nevertheless been held to be part of the land, as mentioned by Scarman LJ in Berkley v Poulett [1977] 1 EGLR 86, who said:

“Nevertheless an object, resting on the ground by its own weight alone, can be a fixture, if it be so heavy that there is no need to tie it into a foundation, and if it were put in place to improve the realty” (emphasis added)

In this case, the judge decided that even if the purpose of the acquisition of the statue was to improve Londoners’ lives generally, there was no intention to improve this particular piece of realty by its being placed in the Stifford Estate.  It could have been placed anywhere.

2.  What was the history of ownership of the statue?  This required a complicated analysis of various statutes (as opposed to statues) and statutory instruments.  LCC’s assets passed to the Greater London Council when it was abolished.  Some of the GLC’s assets passed to Tower Hamlets in 1981, including the Stifford Estate.  However, the judge held that this did not include the statue, as it was a chattel and not part of that Estate, nor was it “connected property” nor an “estate amenity”, nor did it pass under section 62 Law of Property Act 1925.  So the statue stayed with the GLC.

When the GLC was abolished in 1986, the statue passed to its statutory successor, the London Residuary Body.  Mysteriously, the assets of that body are now (for a reason that is not explained in the judgment, and that I have not yet investigated) vested in Bromley LBC (by Article 3 of the London Residuary Body (Winding Up) Order 1996).

3.  So the statue passed to Bromley in 1996, but does Bromley still own it?  This is where the trail becomes very surprising.  Tower Hamlets had twice lent the statue to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  The second occasion was when Stifford Estate was being demolished in 1996, and the statue is still in Yorkshire today.  For this, and other, reasons, the judge held that Tower Hamlets had “converted” the statue, and that it was too late for Bromley to recover it under the six-year period in the Limitation Act 1980 – so its title had been extinguished.  “Conversion” is a tort under which one person deprives another person of his property without consent.  The judge summarised the relevant circumstances as being:

“(a) The conduct of Tower Hamlets must have been inconsistent with the rights of Bromley as owner;

(b) The conduct of Tower Hamlets must have been deliberate, not accidental;

(c) The conduct must have been so  extensive an encroachment on the rights of Bromley as to exclude Bromley from the use and possession of the sculpture (so going beyond mere interference which may found a claim in trespass) …”

He found that Tower Hamlets’ conduct had satisfied the various tests, meaning that Bromley could no longer assert title to the statue.  Which means that Tower Hamlets now owns it.  And, although he did not say as much, it seems that there is nothing that Bromley can now do about it.  But, in any case, Tower Hamlets is now saying that the statue is not going to be sold after all (see this article in The Guardian on 8 July 2015).

 

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One thought on “Who owns “Old Flo” ?”

  1. Katie Bradford says:

    I think that since WW2 in the UK, statues and other works of art have been used to enhance or at least enliven the public realm, with greater frequency than in earlier times, when glorification of famous men was the chief aim. I remember being fascinated by the abstract statues and murals included in the Precincts in Coventry built after the war. I hope that these would often be seen in legal terms as part of their setting in the landscape and so not so easily available for disposal by cash strapped local authorities- and whilst the sculpture park in Yorkshire is wonderful, it would be thrilling to see Flo back in Tower Hamlets!

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