Court of Arches blocks church treasure sale

The Court of Arches has ruled that historical treasures and antiquities held by churches may not be sold to fund the upkeep of churches, save in extraordinary circumstances. The Court of Arches, the highest ecclesiastical court in the Church of England this week upheld a challenge from the Church Buildings Council that sought to block the sale to an American collector of a Sixteenth century helmet by St Lawrence’s Church, Wootton St Lawrence, Hampshire.

The armet, a Fifteenth century helmet, had been part of a monument in the church to Sir Thomas Hooke, who died in 1677.  The helmet retains its original visor cheekpieces. Gorget plates to protect the neck and a spike for a wooden crest were added during the late 17th century.  For the last 30 years, the helmet had been on loan to the museum of the Royal Armouries in Leeds.

In 2011 the parish put the helmet up for auction and it was purchased by an American collector for £55,000. The Church Buildings Council challenged the sale in an ecclesiastical court proceeding, which

Ann Sloman, the Chair of the Church of England’s Church Buildings Council, said the church was delighted that the Court had “reaffirmed the principle that Treasures from Churches, including those on loan to museums, should only be sold in exceptional circumstances”.

“As a church we are the guardians of a very significant part of the nation’s heritage and we are pleased that the judgement has recognized that this is a responsibility we take very seriously,” she noted.

Dr Thom Richardson, the Deputy Master of the Armouries, welcomed the decision saying: “The judgment in the Wootton St Lawrence case will hopefully help to close the floodgates for other parishes seeking to turn the armour in their care into cash. When such helmets appear on the art market they are almost universally sold abroad.” 

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