It has been described as Britain’s “cultural safety net” – a means to save some of the country’s most precious works of art from being sold abroad and disappearing from public view.
But now a former minister is warning that the 60-year-old system for protecting the UK’s cultural heritage is beginning to fail because of a lack of government and philanthropic support.
In the last two years, less than a third of the antiques, paintings and manuscripts that the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest recommended should be “saved for the nation” actually remained in Britain.
Instead works, including Picasso’s Child with a Dove, which had been on display at the National Gallery since 1974, have been lost to collectors abroad because the funds could not be found to keep them in the country.
Under the current system, the committee can ask ministers to delay export licences to allow British museums and collections time to raise the funds to buy the works.
But despite issuing 20 export delay orders since 2012, the money has only been raised to allow six pieces to remain in the country.
Nine of the works have already left Britain after export licence delays were lifted while six are still waiting to see if funds can be found to buy them. These include a Rembrandt.
Lord Inglewood, chairman of the committee and a former Conservative arts minister, said part of the problem had been public expenditure constraints combined with general economic conditions.
He warned that, as a result, pieces of “outstanding significance” were leaving the country and that “posterity would come to regret” not doing more to save them.
“The committee was set up give the country a ‘second chance’ to buy things which are of great significance to the country and are about to be exported,” he said.
“If 50 per cent of those items that we find meet the criteria (leave Britain) then that is a misfortune.
“You can argue that these things don’t matter. But in terms of overall public expenditure we are not talking about big sums of money. If you look at what we overspend on aircraft carriers this sort of stuff is irrelevant.”
He added that the system – by which British buyers must pay the market value of the piece to prevent it being exported – was good for all parties.
“The system is good and is accepted by the museum world, the academic world and the art trade as being a fair compromise and a good way of dealing with these issues,” he said.
“The problem is the availability of resources to actually buy the items that we identify to be national treasures. I would like the Government to have the confidence to say ‘these things do matter’.
“Take Qatar or Dubai. They are creating museums with equivalent things that we are allowing out of the country – because they think in the long run they will underpin the economies of their countries.
“We have an extraordinary storehouse of valuable cultural and historical artefacts which in the current world – where it is so important – will be a valuable foundation for future prosperity in Britain.
“But we are allowing it to dribble away through our fingers for sums of money which, in the overall scheme of things, is very small.”
A spokeswoman for the National Gallery said they would never comment on which works of arts it was or was not trying to purchase, but added that the scheme had been used to allow it time to buy pieces for display in the past.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Culture, Media & Sport said: “The export deferral system exists to help protect the UK’s cultural heritage.
“Whilst it is not always possible to save every item there have been huge successes most recently with Jane Austen’s ring and the National Maritime Museum’s campaign to save George Stubbs’s paintings.”
Lost masterpieces: Art that left Britain
Pablo Picasso, ‘Child with a Dove’ (£50,000,000)
One of the earliest and most important works by Picasso to enter a British collection, Child with a Dove left the country earlier this year after the funds could not be found to keep it. The work marked a transition into Picasso’s celebrated Blue Period, when he moved away from an impressionistic style to a more sparing aesthetic. The painting had been consistently one of the 10 top-selling postcards in the National Gallery.
Raphael, ‘Head of a Young Apostle’ (£29,721,250)
The work dates from around 1519 and was done as a study for the head of one of the figures in Raphael’s painting Transfiguration, which hangs in the Vatican Museum. The drawing is believed to have belonged to Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, in the 17th century and was acquired by William Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Devonshire, 300 years ago. The current Duke sold it to “benefit the long-term future” of Chatsworth estate.
Sir Peter Paul Rubens, ‘Portrait of a Young Woman’ (£3,800,000)
The work dates from around 1603 and, although unsigned, is believed to be the work of Rubens based on the style – particularly the virtuoso dragging of the paint to create the ruffles. The painting had two red wax seals on the back, one proving it was in Venice in the early 19th century, a time of political turmoil, and the other showing it was in a British collection by the 1840s, among the paintings of Sir John Hanmer.
‘Four Scenes from the Passion of Christ’ by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini (£1,105,250)
The committee was told that the scenes were the only known surviving example of 14th-century Italian pictorial narrative cycle painted on a linen fabric support. As such, they were of outstanding significance for the study of the techniques. They are also of interest to historians of 19th-century Anglicanism, as they were among the first “Primitive” paintings to be reused for devotional purposes.
Amber games board, attributed to Georg Schreiber (£821,500)
The games board was believed to have been owned by King Charles I and was given, just before his execution, to his confidant, the Rt Rev William Juxon, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. As amber was such a cherished and costly material, such pieces were normally only owned by royalty or the aristocracy.