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The result could lead to Whitehall’s ‘public access’ policy backfiring spectacularly as owners sell their treasures on the open market rather than be burdened with tax – with many items going abroad and being lost to the British public.

The figures, from what Sotheby’s director James Jowitt said was a random sample across the country of chattels that currently qualify under ‘museum quality’ status, showed that a maximum of only five per cent would be accepted under reassessment under the 1998 Finance Act as being ‘pre-eminent’.

And Mr Jowitt further cautioned that although the survey was random and not scientific, he believed that five per cent was a “gross over-estimate” and in reality far fewer would satisfy requirements.

Under the Act, the Chancellor of the Exchequer also made continuing exemption dependent on improved public access. This included making exempt chattels available for public viewing for a minimum period each year without prior appointment.

By loaning the chattels for a public exhibition at a museum, they fulfil their obligations without having to pay for facilities at their homes or having to open them to the public.

The results of Sotheby’s survey came as Culture minister Alan Howarth visited the Sotheby’s-backed exhibition In the Public Eye: Treasures from Collections in the East of England, at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge last week.

The minister praised the display of tax-exempt art, calling it “an imaginative solution” to the problem of creating reasonable public access to art without putting a huge burden on the owners. “I will be seeking ways to encourage museums to consider how to build on this,” he said. “I want to see every region of the country follow the Fitzwilliam’s example.”

But therein lies a problem, according to Mr Jowitt.

“We organised this exhibition to show how successful the exemption scheme has been over the years, and this arrangement will satisfy the public access requirements for this year and possibly next. But exhibitions like this are not viable every year and not everything can be displayed in this way – think about libraries and archives. In addition, Sotheby’s put up the money, my budget for the Fitzwilliam was not public but it was enormous.”

Mr Jowitt revealed that next year Sotheby’s South in Billingshurst would make space available for displays of heritage chattels in their salerooms when they were not being used. He believed that Bonhams might operate a similar policy.

But while the public access issue may have a partial solution, there seems no getting round the tightening of the status rules to ‘pre-eminent’ quality. “I don’t believe the Government have any idea about how many items would lose their status,” Mr Jowitt told the Antiques Trade Gazette.