Will proposed reforms to the export licensing system save more treasures for the nation?

In a bid to save more national art treasures from leaving the country, the UK government has announced plans to strengthen the export licensing system.

Under the current system, dating from the 1950s, the government can defer issuing an export licence to buyers of cultural goods, if those goods are deemed to be national treasures. The deferral enables UK museums time to raise funds to make a matching offer to the buyer to purchase the artwork at the price the buyer paid, and thereby keep it in the country. At present, there is nothing beyond a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ to bind a buyer to sell his artwork, if a matching offer is made and the funds are raised.

This loophole was made painfully clear by the recent case involving the sale of a rare Old Master painting to US billionaire, J. Tomilson Hill. The vice chairman of the Blackstone Group purchased Pontormo’s ‘Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap’ (1530), which was then subject to a temporary bar in December 2015 when he applied for an export licence. This gave London’s National Gallery time to raise £30,618,987 through a heroic fundraising effort, and make a matching offer to try to save the Pontormo for the nation.

When Hill refused to accept the National Gallery’s offer because of a fall in the value of the pound against the dollar, he was accused of reneging on his agreement to accept a matching offer if the funds could be raised, which caused widespread indignation among art lovers.

The government’s consultation seeks to address the loophole in the current export licensing system by introducing a legally binding mechanism or ‘binding offers’ mechanism. This would make an owner’s agreement to sell his national treasure to a museum, gallery or private purchaser at a fair market price legally binding.

Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism, Michael Ellis, explained that the proposed mechanism was necessary to protect institutions who rely on the goodwill of donors to match-fund the asking price for cultural objects. While he credited the existing system with having “saved hundreds of our most valuable cultural objects for the benefit of the nation” Ellis highlighted the need for reform:

These plans would protect museums that fundraise in good faith and help to keep national treasures in the UK where they can be seen and enjoyed by the public”.

Further information about the consultation is available here, including the consultation document and details of how to respond. The consultation period closes at 11:45pm on 24 February 2019.

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