London gallery takes CapitaLand to court

The gallery, which is housed on the ground floor of The Cavendish hotel in Jermyn Street, has been there for the last 25 years. CapitaLand, which owns the hotel, wants to evict the gallery and redevelop the space.
The gallery, which is housed on the ground floor of The Cavendish hotel in Jermyn Street, has been there for the last 25 years. CapitaLand, which owns the hotel, wants to evict the gallery and redevelop the space.PHOTO: S FRANSES

Court will decide whether CapitaLand can evict S Franses or must grant a new lease

A world-leading London art gallery specialising in antique textiles is locked in a bitter dispute with its landlord, Singapore property giant CapitaLand, which wants to evict the gallery and redevelop the space.

In a legal battle that the gallery owner, Mr Simon Franses, has called a "David versus Goliath" fight, he is taking CapitaLand to court on Jan 16 in a bid to remain on the premises that his gallery has called home for the last 25 years.

S Franses gallery was founded in 1909 by Mr Franses' grandfather, Sidney, and is recognised as an expert in historic textiles, tapestries and carpets.

The gallery is housed on the street-facing ground floor of The Cavendish hotel in Jermyn Street in London's art and antique district of St James's. CapitaLand subsidiary Ascott Limited bought the 180-year-old hotel for £158.8 million (S$281 million) in 2012. The dispute began after CapitaLand rejected the gallery's request for a new 15-year lease in March 2015.

In recent years, many art galleries, specialist traders and antique dealers in the area have been forced out by rising rents and fashion houses setting up shop there.

CapitaLand subsidiary Ascott Limited bought the 180-year-old hotel which houses the art gallery in 2012. The dispute began after CapitaLand rejected the gallery's request for a new 15-year lease in March 2015.

A proposal to protect them was passed last year in a bid to preserve the historic character of the district. Famous art institutions and galleries there include the Royal Academy of Arts, Institute of Contemporary Arts and Christie's. The area has the largest concentration of art markets in the world.

Westminster City Council, which oversees the district, can now reject planning proposals that threaten the existence of these specialist traders, and prevent developers or leaseholders from changing the use of shop spaces.

More than 35 objections to the redevelopment by CapitaLand were reportedly sent to the council. Said Mr Franses: "CapitaLand seems unaware that this is the heart of the St James's art district... It always seemed irrational to try to replace us with fashion outlets, which are against the council's stated policy."

He is reluctant to move as the business is well-established in the area, and significant investments have been made to house centuries-old textiles in a climate-controlled environment. The gallery provides expert appraisals to the British government and counts among its clients major museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Mr Franses said CapitaLand has since withdrawn its planning application to redevelop the shop space. The court will decide if CapitaLand can evict the gallery or if it should grant the gallery a new lease.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, Mr Alfred Ong, Ascott's managing director for Europe, would only say: "Franses' leases have come to an end and an application for their renewal is the subject of court proceedings. We would be happy to comment once that litigation has been concluded."

• Additional reporting by Rachael Boon

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2017, with the headline 'London gallery takes CapitaLand to court'. Print Edition | Subscribe