July 12, 2024

National treasures – Which artworks were ‘saved for the nation’ last year and why?

The UK has a rich cultural heritage dating back centuries. Hurrah! It is also a bit cash-strapped. Boo! These two facts combine to give a situation where some people are always keen to sell stuff, and other people are always keen that the stuff remains in the UK. Since 1952 this impasse has been overcome by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art , a body of eight members who report to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport whether or not a cultural object is a national treasure. This is supposed to be completely independent, yet it is itself appointed by the Secretary of State.

What constitutes a national treasure?

The definition used is different to that used by the tabloids. Bruce Forsyth and Stephen Fry are allowed to leave the country without restrictions. A series of questions called the Waverley Criteria are asked of any piece of work that is being considered for National Treasure Status.

What are the Waverley criteria?

There are three questions that the committee considers relating to history, aesthetics and scholarship.

i. History: Is it so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?

ii. Aesthetics: Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?

iii. Scholarship: Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

If the Committee finds that an object meets one or more of the criteria, it will normally recommend to the Secretary of State that the decision on the export licence application should be deferred for a specified period to give a last chance to retain the object within the United Kingdom.

How many export licences are refused each year?

Not a lot. The latest figures released are from 1 May 2012 to 30 April 2013. In that period 33,842  items, with a total value of £1.7 billion  were issued with export licences. Only 19 were referred to the Secretary of State for deferral – although the value of these pieces was £114 million.

What happened?

Six of the pieces were bought by institutions or individuals in the UK. One was withdrawn, and the rest were issued with export licences and made their merry way abroad.

So which ones stayed in the UK?

An atlas of estate maps of Hampton Court, Herefordshire was bought by the Hereford Archive service for £5000.

A Regence ormolu-mounted Chinese porcelain casket went to the Bowes Museum for £193,250.

A painting by Pietro Lorenzetti, Christ between Saints Paul and Peter is now in the Ferens Gallery (£5,197,000)

The Rothschild Foundation bought seven silk works for £120,000

A peridot and gold suite of jewellery by Rundell, Bridge and Rundell were bought by the V&A for £150,000

Two paintings by George Stubbs were purchased by the Royal Museums Greenwich, National Maritime Museum for £5,500,000

Since 2005 there have never been more than 19 referrals, and in 2011 there were only 7. So you’re probably safe to sell that old painting of a horse that your grandfather left you. Just check it doesn’t say Geo: Stubbs pinxit in the corner.

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