Charity headquarters in Belgrave Square, London, were sold for £6m then immediately resold for £15m profit
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and an ardent spiritualist, could have turned it into a detective story and called it The Case of the Extra Millions.
The Charity Commission is examining concerns about the curious way £15m has departed offshore, after the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain sold its London headquarters in 2011.
The chair on which Conan Doyle reputedly sat to write his Sherlock Holmes stories used to have pride of place at the association’s headquarters, which were until recently at one of London’s most grand addresses, 33 Belgrave Square, alongside the embassies of Bahrain, Portugal and Mexico.
The lease of the Georgian mansion was purchased in 1955 for what now seems the ludicrously low sum of £24,500, and the building was opened by another fan of clairvoyancy, Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, who led Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.
Then in 2010, the spiritualists realised that although their world of seances and mediums was no longer so fashionable, they were sitting on a goldmine due to the rise in central London property prices.
The 1,300 members were told the running costs were “becoming onerous” and the building closed in December 2010. It was sold, and the spiritualists decanted into rented rooms behind Victoria station.
But a Guardian investigation has discovered the sale had unusual features. One was that the spiritualists’ trustees sold the 4,600sq m (15,000sq ft) mansion to a secret buyer.
The charity’s manager, Annie Blair, daughter of its then secretary, Stella Blair, told us: “We were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement by the purchasers … We are unable to provide you with any information, or discuss anything concerning the sale.”
The Guardian has established, however, that Belgrave Square was sold for what now appears to be the relatively low sum of £6m to an anonymous offshore entity registered in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), called Platinum Prime Property Investments Ltd. The BVI is notorious for allowing UK property owners to conceal their identities.
The second unusual feature was that, according to records obtained by the Guardian, Platinum Prime agreed immediately to resell the property. What was most unusual of all was that it was to be sold on to a third party for the massively increased sum of £21m.
According to Land Registry records, the £21m was paid by a second BVI entity, Rose Season Enterprises Ltd. This is controlled by the family interests of the Barclay brothers, owners of the Ritz Hotel in London and the Daily Telegraph. Property sources say it was envisaged as a possible London home for Howard Barclay, David Barclay’s son.
Sources close to the Barclays say they purchased the 31-year lease of the Belgrave Square house in good faith from Platinum Prime, but have no knowledge of the true identity of the owners. The family are expert property investors, who subsequently put Belgrave Square on the market for approximately £26m. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by the Barclays.
As a result of these opaque transactions, a £15m profit appears to have travelled anonymously offshore, and the members of the spiritualist association, the SAGB, seem to have gained only a fraction of the apparent market value of their asset. Platinum Prime did not respond to invitations to comment sent via its local agent in Tortola in the BVI.
We asked the current president of the SAGB,civil servant Charles Hutchinson, and each of the unpaid trustees, about these transactions. All declined to comment.
Julian Goulding, a Guildford solicitor representing the trustees, wrote saying the sale was conducted in accordance with an “independent valuation” and “in the knowledge of” the Charity Commission. He denied that the SAGB had acted in an inappropriate manner. He declined to disclose the identity of the independent valuer; whether the sale process had been advertised; and what exact details had been supplied at the time to the Charity Commission.
A commission spokesperson said: “The Charity Commission is looking into your concerns regarding the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain.”
The commission, which is the official regulator for such tax-exempt organisations, takes a close interest in sales of charity assets. If it thinks concerns are substantiated, it has the power to embark on an official investigation or to refer the sale to other authorities.
Origins of spiritualism
At the core of spiritualism are the beliefs that the spirit transcends the death of the body and that mediums can act as conduits between the physical world and a spirit world.
The movement, which began in the US in the mid-19th century and spread to Britain soon after, is variously described by its adherents as a religion, a philosophy or a science. Though different traditions have their own set of beliefs, they share a handful of key principles: that there is an infinite and all-governing intelligence; that individual identity survives physical death; that the spirit continues to learn after physical death; that communion exists between the physical and the spiritual realms; that all of humanity is spiritually linked, and that everyone is responsible for how they live their lives.
Although the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, which traces it origins back to 1872, is disdainful of the phrase mission statement, it describes its purpose thus: “To offer evidence to the bereaved that man survives the change called death and, because he is a spiritual being, retains the faculties of individuality, personality and intelligence, and can willingly return to those left on earth, ties of love and friendship being the motivating force.
“To offer spiritual healing to those suffering from disease, whether in mind, body or spirit, in a warm and loving environment. With both of these objectives in mind, to offer only the best and highest so that those on both sides of the veil can progress in a truly spiritual sense.”
According to the 2011 census, 39,061 people in England and Wales define themselves as spiritualists. Sam Jones