Warburg ‘safe’ after legal ruling

But University of London also claims victory—and costs could be up to £1m


A dispute between the Warburg Institute and the University of London, which could cost the two parties a total of up to £1m in legal fees, has been largely resolved in the High Court with both sides claiming victory. The university announced its intention to appeal on one point, but the Warburg is now calling for mediation.

The institute, a centre for academic research into the Renaissance, moved to London in 1933, when the library of the German art historian Aby Warburg was brought from Hamburg after the Nazis came to power. In 1944, the university became the trustee of the Warburg, providing a building and funding. The institute has to pay annual service charges, which have risen steeply in recent years. It feared that this threatened its future, and protested to the UK’s Attorney General, who instructed the university to begin legal action against the institute in 2011.

This led to a hearing at the High Court in London in June; the judgment was delivered by Mrs Justice Proudman on 6 November. The Warburg said in a statement that it is now “safe”, because the court confirmed that the university is obliged to fund the institute, and that the additions made to its collection after 1944 belong to the institute, not the university.

The university welcomed the latter decision, but said in a statement that the judge had “found in favour of the university on almost every point that was of importance to us”. Despite rumours that the collection might be moved to Hamburg or New York, it said that the ruling “will ensure that we keep the collection in the university here in London”.

The university is unhappy about one part of the judgment, however. The judge said that the way the university levied charges for space was “not, to my mind, permissible”. The university has announced that it will seek to appeal on this point.

In an open letter published on 19 November, the institute called on the university to accept mediation “to agree ways to implement the terms of the judgment”. The Warburg said that the institute and the university “would be harmed by subjecting both to another long period of uncertainty”.

Adrian Smith, the university’s vice-chancellor, admits that its legal costs, which are “several hundred thousand pounds”, are “serious”. The costs incurred by the institute may be similar.