HM Customs Arrest

“Certain export controls are put in place to protect our country’s cultural heritage”

-Customs Director of Operations Euan Stewart

I saw via the Museum Security Network that a British art dealer has been arrested in connection with the illegal export of paintings valued at $34 million. One of the works is this 17th century painting Portrait of an Artist by Michiel van Musscher.

My question is why? The government put a temporary export ban on the work in 2006 because it was of “outstanding aesthetic importance and of outstanding significance for the study of Dutch art and painting techniques.” But no funds were raised and an export license was granted. The work was then sold to the Prince of Liechtenstein Hans-Adam II. What’s the problem? The wire story doesn’t give any details, and it seems the customs spokesperson refused to comment further.

I think the arrest may reveal troubling shortcomings with UK export restrictions. The art dealer must have been attempting to defraud either the ultimate buyer or the Waverley system in one of two ways.

He may have lied about the size of the offer on the table, making it harder for domestic fund-raising of matching funds.

Or he could have stated there was a buyer when there really was none.

This is possible because there is no requirement that the buyers of Waverley-quality objects disclose their identity. The lack of provenance and the secrecy surrounding art transactions continues to cause problems. It’s a pity he tried to game the system, as the Waverley Criteria really are a model system. This kind of fraud must be thwarted for the system to work properly; and I would anticipate a new requirement into full disclosure to customs authorities will be the end result.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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