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Warburg Institute wins high court judgment against London University

— November 2014

Associated media

The High Court's interpretation of the Warburg's trust deed has resulted in a judgment in the Institute's favour

To the benefit and relief of art historians and other scholars worldwide, the High Court has rejected the University of London’s claims that all additions to the Warburg Institute since 1944 belong to the University, and instead agreed that they form part of the Institute. Furthermore, the judge, Mrs Justice Proudman, held that the University is obliged to provide funding for the activities of the Warburg Institute.

Leticia Jennings of Bates Wells Braithwaite, who advised the Advisory Council of the Warburg Institute, commented:
This decision ensures that the wealth of important material housed within the Institute will remain available, as before, in its entirety, and that the University will not be free to in any way restrict the access of the many scholars who use and rely on the Institute’s outstanding resources.

The Institute grew out of the private library of the art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929), who collected books in art history, literature, intellectual history, religion and the history of science and magic. As a Jewish institution based in Germany, the Institute was forced to close, and its very existence was threatened by the Nazi-organized book-burnings of April 1933. To escape destruction, the entire library of 60,000 books, as well as photographs, papers and furniture, were shipped to the safe-haven of London in December 1933. Many of the Institute’s staff also transferred to London.

After years of negotiation involving members of the Warburg Family, the University of London, distinguished scholars and philanthropists, the University of London became trustee of the Warburg Institute, to hold it on charitable trust pursuant to the terms of a 1944 Trust Deed. The Institute has since grown into a world-class teaching and research institute, much respected and sought after by academics worldwide.

The Trust Deed obliges the University to maintain and preserve the Warburg library in perpetuity, to house it, and to keep it adequately equipped and staffed as an independent unit. Leticia Jennings stated:
The contemporaneous evidence leading up to the signing of the Trust Deed shows that the transfer to the University of London was on the condition that the University accepted these obligations. This judgment has confirmed that the University must maintain the Institute as ‘an independent unit’, and that the University is not entitled to use the name and prestige associated with the Warburg Institute to obtain funds, but to then apply those funds to the University’s general purposes.

In recent years the University had charged a proportion of its total estate expenditure to the Warburg Institute, meaning that the once solvent Institute was left with a significant deficit as it was used, in effect, to subsidize the University’s corporate property. The judge held that the University’s conduct in this regard is not permissible and ‘flies in the face’ of the terms of Trust Deed.

The judge also clarified the important role of the University in relation to housing the Warburg Institute: whilst the University continues to own the building at Woburn Square, it has a binding obligation to house the Institute in a suitable building close to the University centre in Bloomsbury.

Despite the judge’s clear ruling, following a very detailed review of the evidence, the University has decided to seek permission to appeal.

In response to the judgment, Librarian and Acting Director of the Institute, Dr Raphaële Mouren, commented:
Whilst I am very pleased that this judgment appears to mean that the intellectual resources of the Warburg Institute, including its world renowned library, will be preserved for future generations of scholars working in the humanities, I am very disappointed that the University has decided to focus on an appeal. I very much hope it will reconsider, and commit to working with us to strengthen the Institute for the benefit of the academic community and enhancing our corpus of scholars.

The Chairman of the Advisory Council, Professor Margaret McGowan, commented:
The Advisory Council was pleased to receive the judgment representing years of hard work, and had hoped that the University would agree to enter into discussions and begin to work together in the best interests of the Institute and the University. We are frustrated that the University appears to wish to continue to spend its time and money on furthering the legal dispute rather than find a solution to secure the Warburg Institute’s long-term future. The Advisory Council remains very grateful for the immense support it has received regarding this matter, in particular from the American Friends of the Warburg Institute and from The Polonsky Foundation, without whom its successful defence of the matter would not have been possible.

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