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It was in the summer of 2009 that British Art Market Federation chairman Anthony Browne first heard of the proposed move, which alarmed him and a number of London-based art dealers.

This is because the Acquisitions, Exports and Loans Unit (AELU), as it is formally titled, oversees the issuing of export licences for art and antiques, a service used overwhelmingly by the London trade who feared that a move to Birmingham would delay the issuing of licences, prove more costly to dealers and could potentially hamper transactions.

"The efficient processing of both EU and UK export licences is a key factor in our international trade," Mr Browne wrote to Roy Clare, chief executive of the Museums and Libraries Authority (MLA), which oversees the unit. "Sales can often depend on the rapid processing of licences… This can sometimes involve taking the necessary documentation to the AELU [in person] so that a licence can be issued immediately, enabling a buyer to leave the country with a purchase."

Mr Browne won a stay of execution authorised by the Government pending the introduction of a workable online alternative.

Since then, however, it is has been decided to do away with the MLA and transfer responsibility to Arts Council England, leaving the future of the unit in the air… until Mr Clare informed the Culture Select Committee on October 26 that the unit had already moved to Birmingham.

"We certainly would suggest that the entire unit, which we've moved to Birmingham at cost to the public purse, could transfer as an entity into Arts Council," he told the committee. "There is no reason, in principle, why it shouldn't, and it would save further costs and impact in the West Midlands in moving it back out again."

The MLA press office confirmed to ATG that the move had, indeed, taken place, but we have since learnt that most key personnel who run the unit are still operating from its previous offices in Queen Anne's Gate in South Kensington.

Christie's Art Transport, for instance, last week revealed that they were still receiving export shipping licences from the unit at Queen Anne's Gate on a daily basis, and the MLA's website lists seven of the AELU's ten officers as still having London phone numbers.

Those listed with Birmingham phone numbers include only the Government Indemnity Scheme Administrator, the Reviewing Committee's Assistant Secretary and the Panels' Officer.

This leaves the question of cost and money-saving in the air… and what the Culture Select Committee members believe to be the actual position before they take any final decision on the future of the AELU.

By Ivan Macquisten