Art world bureaucracy

December 5 2014

A word of warning for any picture buyers out there; did you know that if you buy an 'old' painting in Spain, and want to export it, you need an export licence, even if it's worth just 1 Euro? It also doesn't matter if the picture has been in Spain for less than a week. If it's there, and 'old', you need an export licence.

I bought a picture at auction there in October, and am still waiting for the licence to come through. The picture in question can hardly be considered Spanish cultural heritage, since it only ended up there in the last decade or so, having been bought by the previous owner in London. But it's a nice job creation scheme for someone in the Spanish civil service. As a dealer also waiting for a licence said to me, you might as well pay someone to paint the grass green.

The varying export licences around the world make for interesting comparisons. In the US, there is no export licence system at all. In Italy, you're lucky to get anything out of the country, the effect of which, in practice, means that if you own a nice painting in Italy, it isn't worth much, unless you can smuggle it out, which happens. It seems to me that the UK's system - of only stopping works where a museum can make a case for its acquisition - is the fairest way to go. That said, it's always dependent on the resources available at that particular moment. 

Update - a Spanish reader writes:

As a keen follower of your blog, I could not resist to write you about your experience with the Spanish export license. It is true you need such a license for everything older than 100 years (not 50 years as the in the EU rule) and that the evaluating committee meets only once every month. The system is slow, and the criteria are not entirely clear, but in general it works. Besides, it is free of taxes when you are exporting the work to another EU country.

Otherwise, there is an interesting, yet relatively unknown exception to this rule. As a way to encourage the import of art works, if you quickly report such an import to Spain, then the imported work gets an automatic 10 years exemption of the export license, meaning you do not need it to export it outside Spain. I think it is a good thing to do if you are a foreign dealer trying to sell something in Spain.

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