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THE Charity Commission has launched a statutory inquiry into the affairs of the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain pertaining to the sale of its former headquarters.
The SAGB was registered with the Charity Commission in 1963. The lease on Number 33 Belgrave Square, built in the 1820s and one of London’s most prestigious addresses, was purchased in 1955, costing £24,500.
As previously reported in PN, the Association sold the property in 2011 on the grounds that the repairing lease and running costs were “becoming onerous.”
In January this year, an article in The Guardian drew attention to the conditions surrounding the sale of the property. Since then other news outlets have followed events.
In a timeline on its website, the SAGB states that it first sought to buy the freehold to justify “the substantial investment required for repairs and renovation”, but this proved too costly. The decision to sell was described as “probably the most poignant and difficult decision for the Association to make” and was agreed after much soul-searching.
Having agreed to sell, the SAGB as trustees, disposed of the charity property in 2010 for £6 million, considered significantly less than its market value at the time. It was purchased by a company in the British Virgin Islands, who then sold it on to another company in the Virgin Islands for £21 million.
The Charity Commission could not confirm the names of the companies involved, and is said to be “engaging with the charity to establish the facts about the property disposal.”
The charity’s accounts for 2010-2011, filed with the regulator, list an income of £5,792,516 as “profit on disposal of leasehold property”.
To date, the charity trustees (SAGB) have been unable to demonstrate that the steps they took, and the decision they made to sell the property was in the interest of the charity. As a result, the Charity Commission opened an inquiry into the charity on July 8th.
In a statement the Charity Commission said: “The investigation by the commission will examine whether, and to what extent, there was mismanagement or misconduct on the part of the trustees. This will include whether the trustees complied with the legal obligations and fiduciary duties as trustees when disposing of a charitable asset.”
The loss of Belgrave Square was deeply felt by Spiritualists. It was their Mecca, and attracted visitors from all parts of the world. They came for private readings, to attend demonstrations, to study, to buy books, or simply to meet like-minded friends in the basement tea-room.
There was history there of famous Spiritualists, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lord Dowding, and the early pioneers.
But many visitors were aware of a chilly wind of change which began to blow through the historic building in its latter days. Its easy-going, welcoming attitude was disappearing, replaced by something more impersonal, perhaps more coldly efficient.
We have lost an irreplaceable treasure, and deserve to know why.
Footnote: A property in Belgrave Square, similar to Number 33, is currently on the market for a leasehold price of £35 million.