Who owns this damaged masterpiece by Henry Moore?
No one is taking responsibility for the work, which stands opposite the Houses of Parliament
By Martin Bailey. News, Issue 228, October 2011
Published online: 17 October 2011
One of Britain’s most important Henry Moore sculptures is deteriorating drastically—and nothing is being done because no one is accepting they own it.
Knife Edge Two Piece, 1962-65, which stands directly opposite the Houses of Parliament, was given to the nation in 1967. The work frequently appears in the background of televised news reports as the site is an ideal spot for interviewing politicians.
No one is taking responsibility for the bronze, which is badly discoloured and covered with incised graffiti. “It is the most damaged Moore that I have seen on display in Britain,” says Moore specialist John-Paul Stonard.
The British Council recently wanted to send the sculpture to Moscow to be displayed in the Kremlin’s public garden with other Moores. The idea was eventually dropped because of difficulties in getting permission to display sculpture at the Kremlin, while the council also found it complicated to establish to whom the loan request should be addressed. However, it now seems that there might have been no legal impediment to prevent the council from simply sending the sculpture to Russia.
Knife Edge Two Piece was donated by Henry Moore (who allowed it to be cast without an artist’s fee) and the Contemporary Art Society (which paid the £7,845 casting charge). The society initially hoped it would be unveiled by the Queen, but the role eventually passed to Robert Mellish, the Minister of Public Building and Works, who cut the ribbon on 1 November 1967. The press release said that the sculpture was “presented to the nation”.
As for ownership, Moore himself recorded it as belonging to the City of London. This was extremely unlikely, since it was placed in Abingdon Street Gardens, in neighbouring Westminster.
Both the Contemporary Art Society and the Henry Moore Foundation said that their records showed that it is owned by the City of Westminster (which is recorded in the official Moore catalogue raisonné). Westminster Council says this is not the case.
Our efforts to track down the owner led us on a Kafkaesque trail. Declassified government documents show that although the Ministry of Public Building and Works “accepted” delivery of the sculpture, it is unclear whether this involved ownership.
The Ministry of Public Building and Works was disbanded in 1970, when it was integrated into the Department for the Environment. Two years later its former “works” functions were transferred to the Property Services Agency, which later became Property Holdings. This was abolished in 1995, with its functions transferred to various government departments.
The present Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, formed in 2001, denies ownership of the Moore. So too does the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, as well as two of its subsidiary bodies, English Heritage and the Government Art Collection. It was suggested we try the Greater London Authority, but they also deny they own the sculpture.
Neither the Henry Moore Foundation (which received many of the sculptor’s works and rights) nor the Contemporary Art Society are making a claim, since they gave the work away.
We asked Tate Britain, which lies just a few hundred yards from Knife Edge Two Piece. Chris Stephens, the curator of last year’s Henry Moore exhibition, had encouraged gallery visitors to go to see it, but could not help us on who might be the owner.
The land on which the sculpture stands is a former world war two bomb site, which belongs to the Parliamentary Estate. The Estate, along with the Parliamentary Art Collection, also denies owning the sculpture. The land beneath the Moore is an underground car park run by Westminster Council.
Melanie Unwin, the deputy curator of the Palace of Westminster, is now determined to solve the mystery. “I have not been able to find out who, if anyone, owns the Moore,” she says. “All the organisations I have approached have said it is not them. It is even possible that the sculpture does not have a legal owner, but this is something on which we will have to seek legal advice.”
On the open market, Knife Edge Two Piece might be worth around £5m. Fortunately, it lies on a site overlooked by the best security in the country. A larger and slightly different version of the work, Knife Edge Mirror Two Piece, 1976-78, stands at the entrance to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
The history of Knife Edge Two Piece
The fact that no one claims ownership of Knife Edge Two Piece explains why it is in such poor condition nearly half a century after the donation:
The Ministry of Public Building and Works, which “accepted” it, knew rather more about the maintenance of government offices than works of art. In 1968, when the Tate was holding a Moore exhibition, the ministry’s chief architect ordered that “the sculpture should be washed down with Fairy Snow”—a brand of household laundry detergent. This was hardly an auspicious start.
The four-metre-long bronze is covered in graffiti, much of which has been there for decades (for instance, one vandal inscribed his name and the date 21 September 1976). Its patina is now extremely corroded and much of the surface is completely black.
A pool of rainwater collects on the plinth at the base of the bronze. There is no plaque to tell visitors what the sculpture is: the plaque has been stolen at least twice.
Two years after it was unveiled in 1967, the Moore was moved to a different spot within Abingdon Street Gardens. It was then raised on a plinth, just under one metre high, although Moore specified that it should be seen at ground level. The position within the gardens was partly determined for structural reasons, since the three-tonne bronze had to be placed directly above one of the columns of the underground car park. The view of the sculpture from the pavement just opposite the Houses of Parliament is now hindered by ugly concrete vents from the car park.
In short, Knife Edge Two Piece requires a full restoration and ideally should be redisplayed in Abingdon Street Gardens in a more sympathetic way. Until an owner steps forward, little can be done.
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