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Art Export Licenses

After writing about the controversy surrounding the Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus I happened upon the Arts Council of England’s website. What all of the British newspapers didn’t say was that this isn’t the first time that the transfer of a work of art was held up by the government.

According to their website, “certain cultural objects more than 50 years of age and valued above specified financial thresholds will require an additional license for export out of the United Kingdom whether on a permanent or temporary basis.”

Along with Manet’s painting, the Council’s December 2011 meeting also discussed the painting La Surprise by Jean-Antoine Watteau, the painting A View of the Rialto Bridge from the Fondamenta del Carbon by Francesco Guardi, a North Italian Empire Athénienne (washstand) by Luigi Mandredini, a pair of Italian console tables and the sculpture The Crouching Venus by John Nost the Elder.

Antione Watteau paintingThe representatives on the Watteau painting (shown at the left), participated in a hearing back in May. The work had an insurance value of £20 million. On the other hand, the Committee valuated the painting at £17.5 million. The initial export license was deferred for three months and the painting would be made available at the lower price to anyone willing to keep it within the UK. The deferral period would be further extended by nine months if the Committee received notification of a “serious intention to raise funds with a view of making an offer to purchase the painting.” However, the second deferral would be decreased to six months if the applicant/owner agreed to allow the painting to be exhibited for fundraising purposes. No one came forward with a “serious intention to raise funds” so an export license was issued after the initial deferral period.

The Guardi painting export application included a hammer price at auction of £26,697,250. This painting, like Watteau’s, met the second Waverly criterion (outstanding aesthetic importance) and the third Waverly criterion as the work was considered of “outstanding significance for the study of the development of Guardi, Venetian view painting and the study of Grand Tour patronage and taste. (The work was believed to have been commissioned by Chaloner Arcedeckne of Suffolk during a visit to Venice in 1768.) The initial hearing was held in September. The export license was deferred for three months at the price garnered at auction. No word on whether or not anyone has expressed a serious intention on raising funds for this work.

While none of the works discussed during the December meeting appear to have been sold to a museum or institution, most of the works discussed in November of 2010 were subsequently sold through this process. I’m not sure if the dates would indicate the committee only meets once a year or that those were the only case hearings that were posted on the website.

I find this entire concept intriguing. The idea that the government, on behalf of the British people, is essentially calling first dibs on the ability to purchase art objects if they are at risk of leaving the country still confounds me. Again, I have mixed feelings on the private ownership of irreplaceable works of art but I also don’t believe museums and the government should just be able to confiscate items. Granted this policy doesn’t provide for confiscation, it certainly makes the sale or loan of art more difficult and gives the museums more than a little unfair advantage over foreign buyers.

I can’t imagine purchasing a £26,697,250 painting at auction only to be told wait…you can’t have it…yet…we have to see if someone from England wants it for that price first. And we’re going to give them 2-3 months to indicate a “serious intention to raise funds” and will give them even more time if they can prove their seriousness. And, if someone happens to match that auction price, particularly a museum or other institution, you lose the painting to them.

What say you? Think this is a good idea? Or do you think it is somehow draconian and unfair to the owners or someone who purchases the work at auction?

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2 Responses to "Art Export Licenses"

  1. Many countries require export licenses for artworks, and often it is considerably more restrictive: in Brazil, for instance, the artwork needn’t be fifty years old, it could have been painted yesterday.

    The law in the UK gives an advantage to museums, it is true, but the notions behind this advantage are that of public benefit and cultural value.

    Surely it is not so difficult for someone who must have visited innumerable public collections to understand these ideas and the benefits to society, educational, recreational and touristic that come from having art available through the (usually excellent, free) public museums that characterise almost all major UK cities.

    It isn’t unfair to owners as the price they get is still based on public auction value, though I agree that the process probably does dampen the enthusiasm both of buyers and sellers. On the other hand, the fact of an artwork having been in a public gallery, and thus widely exsposed, almost certainly increases its value.


    1. Michele says:

      Hi Tadeuesz,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. Please accept my apologies for the long delay in getting it to you.

      I’ve never really been a fan of the folks who amass large collections of beautiful art and then stash it all away in some vault where no one can ever enjoy it. It would certainly be a shame if only those with the deepest pockets could ever see and enjoy a Manet, a da Vinci or the works of any of the thousands of other great artists who have plied their trade through the centuries.

      I agree that countries have a vested interest in keeping their artistic heritage inside their country. Egypt certainly has become well-known for protecting their historical, artistic treasures. Though after the wholesale robbing of tombs that went on in the early years of the 20th century, it’s no wonder they have implemented such strict rules about their antiquities.

      The British way does have the benefit of setting the market price for a piece before allowing museums to purchase the work but only when the painting is being put up for sale.

      I didn’t include it in the original article, but the British citizen who owned the Watteau painting I mentioned had paid over $12 million pounds for the painting in 2008 after the painting had been out of circulation for around 160 years. The owner was not trying to sell it, he was planning on allowing it to be hung in an American museum when the Committee interceded. This was a case of the owner trying to allow the public to view the work and yet he was initially told that UK museums must be afforded the opportunity to purchase the painting before it could leave the country.

      As far as I could determine, the anonymous winner of the 2008 auction is still the owner, even if the painting is currently on display in the Frick Museum in New York. I don’t know if I read everything right but the owner’s offer to let the painting travel to museums outside of the UK almost led to the forced sale of the painting. By any measure, that would seem to defy most any concept of personal ownership and almost extend into the seizure of personal property. Even more so given the difference between the owner’s insurance value of £20 million and the Committee’s valuation that was £2.5 million less. (I realize insurance estimates are generally higher than open market estimates but the price disparity must have been a double blow to an owner simply trying to share his painting with the world…even if it was going to be us Yanks.)

      I guess I had just always thought that if a museum or other institution wanted to obtain a piece that they simply had to compete with the other bidders. In a way, that would seem to be the most fair way – from a free-market sort of view. From a cultural heritage perspective, putting export controls in place makes sense too. But, it does raise the question of a private individual being able to do what they wish with their belongings. I never suspected that a country, its museums and other public institutions were given so much time to raise funds to purchase a specific piece rather than let it move from one private individual to another or to prevent a piece from leaving the country for exhibition purposes.

      In the end, I suppose there’s no completely “fair” way to both maintain and protect antiquities while protecting private property ownership interests. I guess the good news is that every effort is made to provide owners with fair compensation for their antiquities rather than having all privately owned art confiscated in an effort to ensure it remains within a country’s borders and is available to everyone to enjoy.

      Tadeuesz, I did take a moment to explore your blog. I love your work. There’s a joy about it that comes through all of the paintings I saw. Thank you for visiting Art Filled Days and sharing your views on this topic.


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