Saved! £3.7m worth of treasures. Lost! £65m worth of treasures.

December 15 2011

Image of Saved! £3.7m worth of treasures. Lost! £65m worth of treasures.

Picture: Getty

The truly woeful state of the system devised to protect the UK's national treausres has been laid bare in the annual report of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art. This is the body which decides which objects are of 'pre-eminent' national interest.

In the year up to 30th April 2011, the committee decided that paintings by Turner (above), Poussin and Hals, amongst others, were all items of outstanding importance to the UK. But they will all be exported anyway, because no UK institutions could afford to come forward with a matching offer to buy them.

If you look at the objects saved by value in the annual report, it is clear that the more expensive the object the more likely it is to be exported. In other words, the system designed to help keep national treasures in the UK is failing, because it is practically guaranteed that the very best stuff will be allowed to leave. So at the moment there is a bizarre incentive for wealthy overseas collectors and institutions to come to the UK and raid our national treasures, because they know we cannot keep them. It's fill-yer-boots time. I know this because I have spoken to the US curators who are coming over here with eyes wide at the objects potentially on offer. We are losing incredibly important objects at an alarming rate. 

The ultimate problem, of course, is the lack of any acquisition funds for UK museums to buy such works. And, as I have banged on about before, the one body which could afford to save such objects with ease, the awash-with-money Heritage Lottery Fund, does not like to fund the acquisition of objects. Go figure, as they say in the country where many of our national treasures end up these days. 

By the way, if you thought last year was bad, wait till you read next year's report...

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