Jacopo da Pontormo's 'Young Man in a Red Cap' (1530), a masterpiece of Florentine mannerism that The National Gallery raised millions trying to buy. Image credit: DCMS.

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Currently if an artwork is deemed significant then it can be prevented from export temporarily to allow time for UK buyers, such as museums, to raise the funds to match the price the owner paid to keep it in the UK.

However, the owner cannot currently be forced to sell even if the price is matched.

The public consultation, launched by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), called Strengthening the Process for Retaining National Treasures, is open until midnight on February 23.

“Gentleman’s agreement”

The decision to strengthen the system follows the case of Jacopo da Pontormo's Young Man in a Red Cap. The painting was bought by a US collector for £30m and issued with a temporary export bar to allow museums to match the cost following an application by the owner to take it overseas. The National Gallery, aided by a £19m grant, matched the price, but because the owner had originally paid in US dollars, he said that due to a fall in the value of the pound he would only sell for £38m.

The proposals set out in the consultation will introduce a formal, legally binding agreement with private sellers, instead of the current ‘gentleman’s agreement’. This would remove the risk of an owner reneging on any sale. The DCMS said that the planned legally binding mechanism for items temporarily barred from export would only apply to objects valued at more than £100,000. It also proposes safeguards relating to currency fluctuations.

“Protect museums”

Michael Ellis, minister for arts, heritage and tourism, said: “Over the past 65 years our export bar system has saved hundreds of our most valuable cultural objects for the benefit of the nation. However with many exceptional items increasing dramatically in value in recent years, it is right that we strengthen this process. These plans would protect museums that fundraise in good faith and help to keep national treasures in the UK where they can be seen and enjoyed by the public.”

Over the last 10 years, 40% of items at risk of export – valued at around £97m - were saved for the nation by UK museums and galleries. The remaining 60% were exported overseas.

Items that are being exported abroad are assessed at the point of application for an export licence by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, which establishes whether it meets the ‘Waverley criteria’ to be regarded as a national treasure.

The Waverley Criteria are:

  • Is it closely connected with our history and national life?
  • Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?
  • Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

The consultation can be found on the government website: