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"The Three Graces"

Volume 171: debated on Friday 4 May 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whether he will further defer a decision on the application for a licence to export Antonio Canova's "The Three Graces"; and if he will make a statement.

[pursuant to his reply, 2 March 1990, c. 344]: On 2 March I announced that in considering whether or not to grant an export licence for heritage items I proposed from now on to take account of an offer to buy the object from any source, whether public or private. I then invited representations from people who might be affected by this change of policy. I received a number of comments on the proposal and, with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts, have considered them very carefully. I can now confirm that offers to an owner from any source, whether public or private, will be taken into account in making the decision on the export licence. I believe that it would be useful now to set out in some detail the context of this change of policy and the reasons for it.The purpose of the policy for controlling the export of heritage items is to provide a balanced system for retaining the most important items of our cultural heritage in this country. Retention has been the main consideration underlying the policy and will continue to be so in the future.The policy which I am confirming today will ensure that our export control system provides reasonable protection for our heritage in an increasingly competitive world art market.The Export of Goods (Control) Order 1989 prohibits, with very limited exceptions, the export without a licence of goods manufactured or produced more than 50 years before the date of export. The responsibility for granting or refusing a licence is mine, as the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry; however, in exercising these functions I am advised by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts who in turn receives valuable advice from the reviewing committee on the export of works of art.Our system is based on the procedures recommended in the report of the Waverley committee in 1952. This report proposed criteria for determining whether an object is of national importance. Where an individual licence is required and the reviewing committee considers that the item meets any of the Waverley criteria the policy up till now has been to defer consideration of the application for the licence for a short period, usually up to six months. The purpose of this deferral was to give a public institution in the United Kingdom the chance to make an offer to the owner at a specified price which the reviewing committee had recommended as the fair market price. The aim has been that an export licence should not normally be refused unless the owner has received an offer at the fair market price, or has made it clear that he would not accept such an offer were it to be made.That such offers would be financed from public resources was assumed in the Waverley report. But it has always been possible for an offer to come from a private source. At all stages in the consideration of an application for a licence the applicant is free to accept, or indeed reject, an offer from any source at any price. There has never been any question of the Government having power to accept or reject offers or to make anyone else do so.The new policy is much the same as the old, with one important difference. Under the new policy there will be, as there is now, a deferral to enable an offer to be made to the owner at the fair market price recommended by the reviewing committee. It may be an offer from a public institution or from a private source. As now, the owner will be free to accept or refuse any offer. He may also, if he chooses, make it clear that he would not accept an offer from any source. If he does this or if there is an offer in existence following deferral, whether from a public or private source, this will be taken into account and normally a licence will be refused. Of course, if he accepts an offer the application for a licence will lapse. The new elements are that the existence of an offer from a private source will be taken into account when the decision on the export licence is made, as will a general refusal to consider offers from either source in advance of their being made.So the existence of any offer from any source will influence my decision on whether an export licence should be granted. I should emphasise that the only decision I am empowered to take is whether to grant an export licence or not. I have no power to decide who is to be the owner of the item.I must emphasise, too, that where a private offer for a heritage item is successful and the new owner then, at any time, wishes to sell or take the object abroad, he will be subject to the normal export licensing requirements.The consequence of public ownership, which was assumed and encouraged by the Waverley report, has been to ensure public access to the objects purchased. Obviously I am keen that the public should have access to important heritage items, and the extent to which private offers involve some kind of arrangement enabling the public to have access could be an important factor in my consideration. Indeed, my right hon. Friend will be glad to use his good offices to assist in establishing such arrangements. But even where a private offer does not involve any kind of public access we should not presume that ultimately such access would never occur or that the item in question would never be publicly owned. Where an owner of a heritage item wishes to export it and refuses an offer from a private source which involves significant and continuing public access arrangements, I believe that normally he should not be granted a licence to export the item and even when minimal or no public access is provided for in an offer, I will wish to take the existence of that offer into account in deciding whether to grant an export licence. But I must reiterate that the main purpose of the controls is to retain these few important items in this country.I believe that this extension of our policy to take account of private offers can only enrich our heritage. We have a long and continuing tradition in this country of private collections of antiques and works of art. Private ownership in this as in all other spheres is to be encouraged. It is neither possible nor desirable for the retention of major items of our heritage to be dependent on one source of funding—the taxpayer.By encouraging the continuing injection of private money into the acquisition of heritage items, we will be creating a greater funding base for them. I am confident that this will enable a larger number of these outstanding heritage items to remain in this country.

It is my intention in due course to issue a revised "notice to exporters" containing guidance on the detail of procedures which will be put into effect as a result of the change of policy outlined above. When issued, a copy of this notice will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

I have carefully considered all the circumstances of the application for a licence to export "The Three Graces" by Canova, including the representations made by interested parties. I have noted the existence of the offer by Messrs. Barclay to purchase the statue at the price recommended by the reviewing committee. The choice before me, as I have said, is to refuse or to grant an export licence.

I have taken into account also the recommendation of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts that a licence be refused. In all the circumstances, I have decided that the new policy should apply to this export licence application and decided to refuse the licence. If I had taken a decision to grant an export licence "The Three Graces" would have gone abroad.