Negotiations on a new rescue package have raised hopes of saving the Wedgwood Museum collection. Those involved expect to be able to unveil an agreement within the next few months.
As previously reported, a legal loophole left the museum trust liable for a £134m pension shortfall linked to 7500 former staff of the Waterford Wedgwood company, which went into administration in 2010.
Rules governing the Pension Protection Fund (PPF), a body funded by the pensions industry and government to assist individual pensioners in the event of a company bankruptcy, prevented it from compensating Wedgwood pensioners because five members of the scheme worked for a solvent enterprise, the museum trust.
Although the museum trust, a charity, had been legally separated from the commercial company for 50 years, under the law it fell foul of a 'last man standing' rule that left it liable for the entire shortfall because members of its staff were part of the pension scheme.
This allowed the main administrators to sell the collection in the hope of recouping some of the losses, a sale that was expected to raise somewhere between £11m and £20m.
When a High Court ruling backed this move, an international campaign caused such an outcry that Government ministers became involved in the debate to rescue what is seen as one of the world's leading study collections.
Now David Verey, chairman of The Art Fund, has revealed that he and his staff have been working on a plan to save the collection in the public interest while satisfying creditors' demands as far as possible.
"Over the last few months we have been working closely with the administrator, the Wedgwood family, government and leading legal firm Mishcon de Reya to see if there might be an alternative way for the PPF to recoup some of the assets without it having to sell the collection at all - and we are hopeful we have found it," he said.
"It will involve a long legal procedure which, although it may take some months, could recover for the PPF a sum greater than the value of the collection.
"With the need to sell thus removed, the public purse would be spared the responsibility of saving an extraordinary part of Britain's heritage which should never have been put in danger in the first place."
However, details of the proposed deal remain sketchy.
The collection, donated over 250 years by the Wedgwood family, employees and supporters, includes not just ceramics but manuscripts, documents, correspondence, factory equipment, trials, original models and fine art. The museum trust say the company founder, Josiah Wedgwood I, was very conscious of the experimental work he was undertaking and kept his trials and experiments for posterity.