Thousands of people have works for which they paid no inheritance tax, having been allowed to defer the 40 per cent duty in return for allowing the public access to the works. This could be anything from five days for the most fragile and least interesting objects to 100 days.
The exemption plans were brought in 100 years ago to prevent people selling works of art because they could not afford the inheritance tax on them. It was feared that many historically important objects would end up abroad and collections would be broken up if accommodation could not be reached.
Now the Capital Taxes Office in Nottingham, which administers the scheme intends to review every one of the 30,000 exempted pieces and decide what constitutes reasonable viewing time.
The scheme, which is expected to come into force by the end of next year, already has its critics. Art owners whose homes are not already open to the public say they would rather sell than have to allow people to traipse through their bedrooms and bathrooms.
Tim Bankes, whose parents sleep in a tax-exempt, George III four-poster bed, said: "If the Inland Revenue are determined to take this stance then I for one will be looking at getting rid of the furniture."
"It is a populist policy for people who think we are getting a good tax wheeze when in reality it has happened for years.
"It is lovely to have these things but if they are attached to these awful viewing restrictions then it is really not a bonus and I would prefer to sell and pay the tax."
An elderly woman who has an 18th century lavatory which is a copy of Nelson's toilet cabinet on HMS Victory, said that if the rules came into force she would sell the object, which she had planned to leave to the National Trust.
The Inland Revenue defended its planned crackdown, saying that owners could lodge the objects with their solicitor, or local library.
The system was last changed in the1970s to include a degree of public access in return for the tax break and a list of all the objects was compiled and kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Disgruntled owners, whose names and addresses appeared on the list referred to it as a burglar's charter and many employed delaying tactics or demanded references before allowing visitors. Others simply put the name of their solicitor or accountant on the list who prevaricated on their behalf.
A recent report by the National Audit Office found that a quarter of visits took more than two months to arrange and that most visitors were professional researchers rather than art lovers. The report also found that just one in six objects receives a visitor each year.
However, a straw poll by The Independent found that most solicitors were more than willing to arrange a visit within a few days. Of eight requests, only two demanded a letter and the rest agreed to arrange a visit over the telephone.
But the new rules mean that everyone will be forced to display their belongings even if no-one comes to visit them.
Richard Constable, the great-great-grandson of the artist, said he had never refused anyone permission to inspect his collection of letters between Constable and his wife or his two portraits. "I keep these things at home but my concern is not so much about those being stolen as people using it as an excuse to case the joint. I doubt we will sell because they are family things but I may well give the letters to a solicitor for the time they are meant to be on display. We can do that because they are portable but there will be many people who can't carry things about."
Sir Jack Baer, a London art dealer who looks after a tax- exempt Picasso watercolour,said there was no doubt the system had been abused and needed to be changed. But he warned that for those who could not afford to pay the tax, the new rules would "bring about the very situation which the scheme was intended to avoid".Reuse content