One of the most valuable collections of ceramics in the country is at risk of being dismantled because of a legal dispute over a pension debt.
The Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Staffordshire, could be liable for a £134m pension fund black hole left by the Waterford Wedgwood company when it went into receivership in January 2009.
The dispute has arisen because five of the museum trust’s staff were in the same pension scheme as employees of the company. That meant the museum was the last viable institution employing members of the scheme, forcing it to take on the pension debt.
The museum said it had taken the case to court, arguing that its assets could not be used to pay off debts because it enjoyed permanent endowment status.
However, if it loses its battle, it will be forced to sell its contents, which includes rare ceramic works from the 18th century assembled by Josiah Wedgwood, the family member who was largely responsible for industrialising the company.
Among the museum’s masterpieces is Josiah Wedgwood’s copy of a famous Roman cameo-glass vase once owned by the Duchess of Portland.
It took him more than three years of experiments and trials before the first perfect copy was made in October 1789, and is considered among the greatest technical achievements of the potter’s art.
Wedgwood was among the first companies to establish a permanent collection of ceramic works at the beginning of the 20th century.
The company became Waterford Wedgwood in 1986. The museum is one of the most distinguished in the area, and only last year was the winner of the £100,000 Art Fund prize for museums and galleries.
Lord Puttnam, who chaired the judges, said the museum brilliantly highlighted the marriage of art, design, manufacturing and commerce, and described Josiah Wedgwood as a “combination of Steve Jobs and James Dyson”.
The museum, which had to go into administration itself earlier this year so that it could seek the support of the Pension Protection Fund, said it was currently seeking to raise money to fight its case. Begbies Traynor is acting as the administrators.
Wedgwood Waterford was forced into receivership when the economic downturn hit sales.
Parts of the company were taken over by KPS Capital Partners, the US private equity firm.
A legal decision on the case is expected in October.
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