Members of the Wedgwood family have welcomed a pledge from billionaire John Caudwell to save an irreplaceable pottery collection from being lost to the region – but only if it remains in trust.
Mobile phone tycoon Mr Caudwell, whose £1.5 billion fortune earned him second place on the Birmingham Post Rich List in 2011, has revealed plans to buy the unique Wedgwood collection to preserve it for the region.
He made the pledge after a High Court ruling that the 10,000-piece Wedgwood Museum collection in Stoke-on-Trent can be sold off to help plug a £134 million pension fund shortfall.
Experts say the move will bring some cheer to both the region’s tourism and manufacturing sectors, as the collection plays a crucial role in promoting the Staffordshire ceramic industry.
Stoke-on-Trent city councillor Alison Wedgwood, whose husband Tom is a direct descendant of Wedgwood founder Josiah Wedgwood, said she welcomed Mr Caudwell’s plans.
However, she said it was vital that any arrangement reached about the Wedgwood collection ensured that it remained in trust, so it could be seen by future generations in Staffordshire.
She said: “If we had some guarantees that it was going to be saved forever and not become part of anyone’s personal collection then we would be very happy.
“The family would back anyone who said they were going to make sure the collection is going to be held in trust.
“We need to raise a certain amount of money – we are not clear how much at the moment – but as long as it remains in trust that is the most important thing.”
The High Court ruling that the historic collection is not held by the Barlaston museum in trust, and so can be sold to pay off creditors, comes after months of campaigning and legal battles from people desperate to ensure it is not broken up.
The problems began when historic pottery manufacturer Wedgwood went into administration in 2009, and Bob Young and Steve Currie from Begbies Traynor were made administrators of followed by the museum in April 2010.
But the museum was later hit with a £134 million claim from Wedgwood Group Pension Plan, putting the collection, which includes rare pottery, paintings and manuscripts, under threat.
It had previously been thought the items could not be sold as they were held in charitable trust, but Judge Charles Purle QC in Birmingham High Court ruled that was not the case.
The court was told the collection is worth between £11.5 million and £18 million.
Mr Caudwell, who sold mobile phone giant Phones 4u, the business he founded, in 2006, said it was unfair that a key part of the region’s heritage could be sold off, and vowed to act to ensure it remained on display for all to see.
He said: “The first thing that strikes me is just how grossly unfair it is that a law designed to protect people in totally different circumstances is causing such vast worry and uncertainty among those who are completely blameless for a debt that may result in an important collection – and a big piece of Potteries heritage – being broken up.
“I passionately believe that the collection should remain intact and in place, and available for public viewing.
“If the Trustees don’t find any other way of solving the issue, then I will attempt to buy the entire collection and keep it in situ for the foreseeable future, and continue with public access.
“This would be subject, of course, to the outcome of any discussions with administrators, and input of the trustees.
“It is vital that such an important piece of history and heritage remains in the Potteries.”
Campaigners hope that the Attorney General will seek to overturn the ruling to ensure the collection remains in Staffordshire.
Ms Wedgwood said she was pleased that someone of Mr Caudwell’s stature had shown an interest in saving the collection – but said the families’ priority was to ensure it remained in the region for future generations.
She added: “It is a very generous gesture and we are certainly interested in talking to Mr Caudwell.
“It certainly sounds like he has got the people of North Staffordshire and the history in mind.”
Mr Young from Begbies Traynor said: “This is not necessarily the end of the road for the collection or the museum as we are exploring other options to raise money to keep the collection in situ.
“We have already held discussions with the Heritage Lottery Fund, the V&A Museum, certain members of the Wedgwood family and other potential benefactors about raising funds.”
Sue Evans, chief executive of the Ceramic Industry Forum, which offers support to the pottery sector, said the collection was of significant value both to the manufacturing industry and as a regional visitor attraction.
She said: “It was an enormous disappointment to everyone in the sector that a way couldn’t be found to protect the collection.
“It was a tragic ruling that a collection that is so important could be lost from the area.
“Without doubt, this is a really prized draw for the area and demonstrates the best in manufacturing and design. It brings people into Stoke-on-Trent and is helps the local economy.
“Hopefully they will find a solution.”