Antiquities-for-taxes swap saves Welsh archive

Unlike the Vasari scheme, this one was even consensual! A little known codicil in the UK tax code allows inheritors of major estates with the attendant major tax bill to give the government assets of historical value in lieu of 40% of payment.

The heirs of Penrhyn Castle in Gwynedd, Wales, were therefore able to donate the castle archives, that’s complete records dating back more than 700 years, from 13th century Latin parchments to 20th typed ledgers.

The earliest item in the Penrhyn archive is from 1288 and details the sale of the township of Karnechan, along with all its goods and people!

There are more than 120 similar legal documents dating from the 14th and 15th Centuries, written in Latin on parchment.

They provide a vital understanding of the Griffiths of Penrhyn, vassals to the princes of Gwynedd and key allies in attempts to form a single Welsh principality. […]

In the 17th Century, the castle passed into the hands of the Pennant family.

Hundreds of documents relate to the family’s estates in Jamaica and their controversial involvement in the trade of slaves, sugar and rum, the profits from which financed the expansion of Penrhyn slate quarry into the biggest such operation in the world.

Penrhyn CastleIn fact it was the slaves-and-slate lucre that funded the building of the current Norman revival castle in 1820. The medieval structure — a crenelated manor house — had already been knocked down and rebuilt in the 1780s.

The documents are currently conserved and cared for at Bangor University’s library. Part of the deal made with Internal Revenue stipulates that the archive remain where it is. Curator Einion Wynn-Thomas is relieved that the long-term future of this collection is now secure.

It’s a completely unique record of medieval Wales, and an uninterrupted perspective on local business development, like the link between the slate trade and the slave trade. Without the swap system, these invaluable primary sources would most likely have been split up and sold to the highest bidder.

The assets-in-lieu scheme has been on the books since 1901, but until World War II, the government pretty much picked the cash every time. The heavy death duties meant the collections and contents of great estates often had to be sold by the heirs just so they could pay off the tax bill, never mind finding the cash to sustain the historical property going forward.

After the war, a special fund was set up to pay off the exchequer the value of the historical asset, but it only kicked in with very high ticket items. Gordon Brown in 1998 created a Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs acquisitions, exports and loans unit specifically to investigate assets-in-lieu possibilities without focusing solely on market value as the bottom line. Now historical and cultural value are part of the calculation as well, and that saves all kinds of beautiful and precious things which may not necessarily sell big.