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CapitaLand to appear before London courts over dispute with UK art gallery

Singapore property giant CapitaLand is locked in a legal dispute with a 100-year-old London art gallery - in a case that has been described as one that pits profits against the arts.

SINGAPORE property giant CapitaLand is locked in a legal dispute with a 100-year-old London art gallery - in a case that has been described as one that pits profits against the arts.

CapitaLand will have to come before the Royal Courts of Justice in London, from Jan 16, to show why it has grounds to evict Franses Gallery from The Cavendish hotel, run by CapitaLand's wholly owned subsidiary, The Ascott Limited.

Franses Gallery has occupied its purpose-built premises in The Cavendish for a quarter of a century, while Ascott purchased the hotel in August 2012.

Paul Dimoldenberg, who is handling the public relations for Franses Gallery on this issue, told The Business Times: "The dispute originated with the request by the gallery for a new 15-year lease, under the (United Kingdom's) Landlord and Tenant Act 1954, in March 2015, which would normally prompt reasonable negotiations and discussions.

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"Unfortunately, the landlord (Ascott) has taken an extremely aggressive approach to the matter and seeks nothing less than immediate eviction. The gallery is fighting to maintain its presence and continuing business and archive and other services."

CapitaLand has confirmed the dispute, with its managing director for Europe at Ascott, Alfred Ong, saying only that "Franses's leases have come to an end and an application for their renewal is the subject of court proceedings".

He added that the company would comment once litigation has been concluded.

The Business Times understands that the case is a specialist property matter that will be heard by the Royal Courts of Justice, the Strand, Central London CC. The courts will have to decide if CapitaLand has shown that it has grounds to refuse a new lease to Franses Gallery, or if it should be ordered to grant the lease.

The gallery is represented by a leading property Queen's Counsel, Mr Dimoldenberg said.

Franses Gallery was established in 1909 by Sidney Franses, and is known for its historic tapestries and textile art. It is home to the Franses Tapestry Archive, said to be the world's largest academic research resource on the subject. It reportedly holds over 240,000 visual records of European tapestries accessible by subject, date, country of manufacture and place of origin.

Its premises in The Cavendish place it at the corner of St James's and Jermyn Street, close to Piccadilly Circus, and part of London's West End. The area is known for its concentration of numerous art galleries.

However, office rentals there are also among the most expensive in the world, with space being highly sought after.

A press release issued by Franses Gallery said Ascott had intended to replace the gallery with two fashion outlets earlier, but had to withdraw the planning application for this, "after a barrage of protests from neighbours, curators, collectors and other galleries".

"The gallery's lawful use of the premises for its current purposes was confirmed by Councillor Robert Davis, deputy leader of Westminster City Council, on Dec 6, 2016, when representations made by The Cavendish were dismissed," it went on to say.

It also quoted Mr Davis as saying, on a separate occasion, "Our historic tailors and art traders are coming under intense pressure from other disparate users eager to rent in the area. We are using our powers to protect some of the capital's most valuable assets and create an environment where specialist traders can thrive."

Simon Franses, third-generation gallery director, said in the press release: "CapitaLand seems unaware that this is the heart of the St James's Art District, the world's greatest concentration of art expertise. It always seemed irrational to try to replace us with fashion outlets, which are against the council's stated policy. Any replacement would now be limited to art, antique or bespoke, and would pay an equivalent rent to us."

The Cavendish was bought by Ascott in August 2012 for £158.8 million (S$281.3 million).

Ascott says it is now the world's largest international serviced residence owner-operator, with about 22,000 operating serviced residence units in key cities of Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Gulf region.