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Industry bodies have protested at EU proposals to tackle illicit trading in cultural goods that they say could damage the entire UK art and antiques market. They also say that they have not been consulted in the planning process.

An EC suggestion to introduce an import licence system for cultural goods entering the EU, a measure being mooted as part of efforts to block the financing of terrorism, would place “an enormous administrative burden” on the art and antiques industry.

Anthony Browne, chairman of the British Art Market Federation (BAMF), told ATG: “We have enough competition from outside the EU and this measure could increase the perception that it’s more complex to do business here, as opposed to New York, Hong Kong and other parts of the world with which we compete.”

The industry’s “big concern”, he added, which has been relayed to the EC, is that though it is intended to target terrorism funding via archaeological looting, the import licence system being proposed in a Deloitte survey for the EC “applies to everything covered by the EU existing cultural regulations”. It would therefore impact the wider art and antiques trade.

A spokesperson for the EC – the executive arm of the EU responsible for proposing legislation – said planning was at “a preliminary stage” and stressed its aim was “purely to target instances of cultural goods which are destined for market with the intention of financing terrorism”.

'No disruption to legitimate art market'

The EC would be “very careful to ensure that any potential proposal in this area would not disrupt the legitimate art market”, the spokesperson said.

If a decision is taken to submit a proposal to member states for legislative measures, an online public consultation for a minimum of three months will be open to all stakeholders.

However, BAMF, which includes The British Antique Dealers’ Association, has raised concerns about the way the EC is researching potential measures. The two bodies say they were not consulted on what BADA called a “somewhat simplistic” Deloitte survey to research options for the EC.

The survey’s phrasing of questions “assumes that there’s a lot of illicit trade going on and yet there is no evidence in the UK for this”, said Mark Dodgson, BADA’s secretary general. He described some of the measures outlined as “inappropriate”, including a single customs office in charge of the import/export formalities for cultural goods.

Laws 'already exist'

“There are already several laws in place, including the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, which makes it illegal in the UK to deal with illicitly removed items from any site in any country including the UK,” he said.

Browne described the survey as “a very blunt instrument to deal with the complex issue of antiquities looting”. The questionnaire features a series of ‘yes/no’ or ‘polar’ questions including: “In your opinion, are the import/export formalities currently in place sufficient to tackle the illicit trafficking in cultural goods?”

“Because the survey is so oddly set out with binary yes/no answers, with no ability to comment, the danger is the conclusions drawn from this survey will be very misleading,” Browne said.