Will the UK’s new export licensing system save more art treasures for the nation?

In a last minute Christmas gift for UK arts institutions, the Government has announced it will be bolstering the export licensing system to save more national art treasures from leaving the UK.

In December 2018, we reported on the government’s plans to consult on the export licensing system. This followed the much maligned departure of Jacopo Pontormo’sPortrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap’ (1530) from the UK, after the billionaire American buyer refused to accept a matching offer from London’s National Gallery.

The UK government had deferred issuing an export licence to the buyer to enable the National Gallery to raise funds to match the offer and save the masterpiece for the nation. However, with only a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ in place, there was nothing to bind Hill to sell the Pontormo to the Gallery.

The public consultation on ‘Strengthening the Process for Retaining National Treasures’ asked respondents to submit their views on the introduction of a legally binding mechanism into the process of export licensing. The mechanism would ensure fundraising efforts by public institutions such as those of the National Gallery would not be wasted by ‘ensuring that Owners of very special cultural objects honour their commitment to accept a matching offer’.

Boodle Hatfield LLP was among 42 respondents to the consultation whose views were analysed. 28 of these responses supported the legally binding mechanism.

In December 2020, the UK Government confirmed its decision to introduce a mechanism of legally binding offers through amendments to statutory guidance. It affirmed that among the consultation’s respondents there was ‘widespread recognition of the benefits of ensuring that public institutions can fundraise with confidence’.

The amended statutory guidance was laid before Parliament on 1 January 2021 and the new mechanism began on that date. Arts Council England, which manages the export licensing system on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) will also be updating its ‘Procedures and guidance for exporters of works of art and other cultural goods’ to reflect the amendment.

The Government’s move will hopefully offer some respite for UK arts institutions devastated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and fearful for their futures. Safe in the knowledge that buyers will be bound to accept matching offers, galleries and museums can concentrate their efforts on fundraising. Whether this will save more art treasures for the nation remains to be seen.

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