In the case of The London Borough of Tower Hamlets v The London Borough of Bromley  EWHC 1954 (Ch) the question of the legal ownership of a work of art was deliberated.
This case concerned a Henry Moore sculpture called “Draped Seated Woman” which he created in 1957 and is a large bronze figure sitting upon a stepped plinth. Six casts were made, one of which was purchased by the London County Council (“LCC”) in 1962 and shortly thereafter placed near three tower blocks on the recently constructed Stifford Estate in Stepney, London (now in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets). Tower Hamlets wished to sell the sculpture but the London Borough of Bromley (successor to the London Residuary Body (“LRB”)) said the sculpture should be kept for the benefit of the people of London. The question was; who owned the sculpture?
The history in this case is somewhat convoluted and involves the re-organisation of various government bodies, the end result of which was that the Stifford Estate was eventually transferred to Tower Hamlets and the sculpture eventually became vested in Bromley, as successor to the LRB.
The Court first dealt with the interesting question of whether or not the sculpture was a chattel or a fixture. To do this it considered the method and degree of annexation of the sculpture to the land and then the object and purpose of that annexation. It said the sculpture had been purchased in pursuance of an arts scheme and the money used to pay for it came directly from its annual arts allocation; the expense had not been recorded as a housing cost. Further, the sculpture could be (and was over the years) removed from the site. The Court found these facts indicative of its finding that the sculpture was an object in itself, independent of the location in which it was situated, and was therefore a chattel.
The Court then dealt with who owned the sculpture; was it Tower Hamlets or did it remain vested in the LRB (and therefore belong to Bromley)? Tower Hamlets argued that it became the legal owner of the sculpture when the Stifford Estate was transferred to it. However, the Court did not consider the sculpture to be connected with the Stifford Estate. It followed from that reasoning that the sculpture could not be an estate amenity because it was not dependent upon its location and neither did it pass by virtue of section 62 of the Law of Property Act 1925 because it was not a fixture appertaining to the Stifford Estate. Consequently, the Court concluded that the sculpture had remained vested in the LRB.
Tower Hamlets had one more argument in its armoury; that the sculpture had passed to it by the tort of conversion, in that it had converted the sculpture to its use and as a result Bromley could no longer assert any rights to it. Since the Stifford Estate was transferred to Tower Hamlets, it had dealt with the sculpture as if it were the legal owner; including lending it to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (“the YSP”) for 6 months in 1987, sending it off (and paying for) its restoration in 1992, and then lending it to the YSP again in 1996.
The Court agreed that these acts were all assertions by Tower Hamlets of rights of dominion over the sculpture which were inconsistent with the ownership rights of Bromley and, by virtue of that, the sculpture had been converted to its use as a result of the tort of conversion. However, it went on to say that what ultimately conferred title to Tower Hamlets was the fact that Bromley had failed to assert its rights to the sculpture over the years. Section 3(2) of the Limitation Act 1980 provides that where a cause of action in respect of conversion of a chattel has accrued and the period for bringing an action has expired (that is six years for conversion) without the owner recovering possession of the chattel then the title of the owner (in this case Bromley as successor to the LRB) is extinguished. As Bromley had failed to take action in time Tower Hamlets was held to be the owner of the sculpture, which the Court said no longer remained vested in Bromley.
In 2012 when this case began, the then mayor of Tower Hamlets indicated that he intended to sell the sculpture, which was expected to fetch around £20m at auction. However, the current mayor of Tower Hamlets is now reported to have said the sculpture will no longer be sold and will instead be retained for public enjoyment.
This case suggests art owners should ensure they can more readily demonstrate their title and ensure if issues of ownership arise that they positively assert their ownership at an early stage. Otherwise they could find they have lost all rights to the artwork, as Bromley did in this case.