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November 1991

Vol. 133 / No. 1064

Waverley Wavers

LAST YEAR'S REPORT of the Export Reviewing Committee was exasperated in tone. This year's is openly angry.' It informs the Minister for the Arts that the Waverley system has been 'to all intents and purposes, killed off through lack of funds'. Of the eighteen items held by the committee to meet its criteria for retention, only eight, with a com- bined value of ?3.5m. have been retained, while seven, with a value of ?34m. have been exported.2 The latter of course include the Badminton Cabinet, Ribera's Martyrdom of St Bartholomew and the Northumberland Bestiary. While it is splendid that the only starred item of the year, the Middleham Jewel, has been acquired by the York- shire Museum, once again this would not have been poss- ible without the last-minute intervention of Mr J. Paul GettyJr.

The Minister's response to this unsatisfactory state of affairs has been to instruct the Reviewing Committee to review itself, to consider whether the Waverley System should be replaced, and if so whether, for example, a listing system might be more effective. He has been quoted as saying, 'If its report is too contumacious, I may have to ask three wise men to look at it and sort out what to do'. It is unclear whether a group of unpaid advisers can techni- cally be guilty of contumacy ('the perverse and obstinate resistance of authority'), but if the Minister was fearful that this might be the case, why did he not commission an independent review of the export control system to begin with? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he is playing for time.

It cannot be said too often that there is nothing wrong with the Waverley System. Although the Museums and Galleries Commission has suggested a few technical changes, these would be equivalent to rearranging deck- chairs on the Titanic, unless adequate funds are provided for museums to purchase. The National Museums' pur- chase grants, frozen since 1985, must be increased. The National Heritage Memorial Fund must be given more money. Fiscal incentives for private treaty sales, acceptance in lieu, and gifts, must be made more attractive.

Nonetheless, serious study of the pros and cons of listing systems is worth undertaking. The Minister will have to consider whether listing is fair, whether it is efficacious, whether undesirable side effects might outweigh advantages, whether it is politically feasible, and - above all - whether it would be any cheaper than the present system. An examination of listing arrangements in other European countries will be instructive, but will not produce the cheap panacea for which he is searching. The cheap systems are those which freeze private collections without benefit- ing the public, as in Italy and Spain, where huge numbers of items are subject to a total export ban, and evasion and smuggling are rife. Two countries - the Netherlands and Germany - have more realistic and effective listing systems, but neither provides a perfect model.

In the Netherlands listing was introduced by legislation in 1984 and has operated successfully since then, no listed work having permanently left the country. However, the Dutch law does not impose a total ban on exports: it merely requires the owners of listed items to give notice of intention to sell abroad, objection to which by the Minister constitutes a public commitment to buy. If no action is taken after four months, the piece can be exported. The procedures work for two reasons. First, the scale of the operation is relatively small: only 600 items are listed of which a mere five per cent are in private hands, the rest belonging to religious or charitable institutions. Secondly, it is implicit (as it was in the original Waverley report) that public funds will be made available when necessary. If similar legislation were introduced in the UK, it would be no cheaper than the present system. In fact the Dutch machinery has never been put under severe strain. Only ten items have been acquired under its procedures since 1985 and no listed item has been exported; whereas in Britain since 1986 about 40 items of Waverley standard have been acquired, and 42 exported.

The procedure in Germany resulting from a Federal law of 1955 is somewhat different. Each Land compiles a list of cultural treasures of which the total now stands at c.450 items (a small number, especially since in Berlin it includes the works of art bought for the Prussian State Museums by the Kaiser Friedrich Museum Verein). In- clusion on the list brings the owner complete tax exemption for the objects (whereas in the Netherlands only conser- vation subsidies are provided). Export of any item requires a licence. The crucial difference from the Dutch system is that there is no public obligation to buy an item for which a licence has been refused, although, since only two appli- cations for permanent export have been received since the 1960s, the issue remains academic. It is hard to believe, however, that the huge number of private claims now being filed on property and artefacts expropriated by the East German government after the war will not cause problems for the system when it is extended to the East German Lander. In West Germany there has been no pro- vision for spot listing of new discoveries, and no check on the export of unlisted items. In Britain such a system would have resulted in the unimpeded export of the Middleham Jewel; and even a very long list would inevitably miss neglected items in country house collections.

One advantage of listing would be that decisions could be made about the worth of objects after due consideration rather than at gun-point: haste can occasionally produce anomalous results. Surely the Watkin Williams Wynn Rubens at the Metropolitan Museum (see p.801) would be on any eventual list? (it was adjudged not to meet the Waverley criteria). But the Reviewing Committee's net still remains finer than most alternatives. It is for the Minister to decide whether he wishes to take his party in the direction of the expropriation of private property.