The European Union passed its proposals for the import licensing of cultural property on April 9, confirming the decision in its official statement and publication of the new regulations on April 17. What was eventually passed remains highly controversial and will undoubtedly cause problems. This is because despite more workable and reasonable measures being agreed on as recently as February following consultation with Member States and their legal advisers, the adopted version appears to have ignored their wishes and reverted to an earlier set of proposals instead.

What are the salient points of what has been adopted?

Importers of any archaeological artefacts aged over 250 years originating from outside of the EU will have to provide paperwork showing legal export from the source country under the laws of that country at the time of export regardless of the items’ value. It should be remembered that this does not just apply to artefacts from the Levant or North Africa, but also to Asian art, Islamic art and Tribal art of all types, from the Oceanic art of the Pacific to the native tribal art of North and South America, as well as Australia.

In many (if not most) cases it is likely to prove impossible to provide such proof because of how far back in time the original export might have taken place, the difficulty in identifying when that was, the likelihood that no information exists on what relevant laws applied at the time and the almost certain lack of paperwork. Where this is the case and either a valid export licence from the source country or other paperwork establishing legal export are not present, the regulations allow for a derogation in two very limited exceptional circumstances as long as it can be shown that an item was legally exported from the last country where it had been located for an unbroken period of more than five years. The first is where the source country cannot be reliably identified, while the second is where it can be shown that the item in question was exported from its source country before April 24, 1972, the original enforcement date of the UNESCO Convention. This latter condition ignores the fact that the accession dates of respective countries to the Convention were all years, if not decades, later, and so introduces more restrictive measures than the source countries themselves have ever agreed to. It is likely that most of these countries are not aware of this EU decision.

What this appears to mean, in effect, is that anything legally exported from source countries after April 24, 1972 would not be recognised as licit for the purposes of import to the EU unless it is actually accompanied by a valid export licence.

Take, for example, Egypt, which continued to export artefacts legally until 1983. Under the new regulations, an item legally exported from Egypt in 1978 accompanied by reasonable paperwork showing this, but not an actual export licence, might still be deemed illicit for the purposes of import to the EU because it was later than April 24, 1972.

Sting in the tail of importer statements

Paragraph 7 of the new regulations make it clear that the definition of cultural property they adopt are based on the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention. However, while the UNESCO Convention only addresses items of importance, the terms of the new EU regulations are far wider ranging, encompassing all archaeological artefacts regardless of value. This will render the import of many licit items uneconomic, while the extensive customs processing period of several months will also prove a problem for dealers standing at fairs or both dealers and auctioneers selling on to clients.

For everything else, from paintings and drawings to sculpture, historical items, flora and fauna and so on, importers will need to provide importer statements warranting legal export from the source country – backed by the relevant documentation – if the item in question originated outside the EU, is more than 200 years old and valued at more than €18,000. Again, this is likely to have implications for dealers, auctioneers and collectors for the reasons given above.

Importer statements may seem like a softer option, but the risk in using them could actually be greater. This is because the declarer takes on legal responsibility for the statement they issue and the status of the item being imported. This means that where an importer acts in good faith, providing the relevant paperwork to support the statement, they could still be held liable under the new regulations if it is later discovered that the item had been stolen or illegally exported at an earlier time, before it came into their possession. The authorities have made it clear that sanctions for those who breach the new regulations will be severe.

The stated purpose of these regulations is to prevent items that might have funded terrorism from entering the EU. Given that no member state, nor the European Commission’s own research for the purpose of drawing up these regulations has found any evidence at all of this happening, the measures fail to meet the EU’s own standards of proportionality when taking the possible ensuing damage to the international art market into account. Bearing in mind that existing stringent sanctions relating to Syria and Iraq already apply within the EU for this purpose, it would have been much simpler and cost-effective to extend them to cover Libya, Yemen and any other source country identified as being at risk.

Our fellow association, the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA), intends to continue working with stakeholders – including undertaking a legal review of the adopted terms – to ensure that the measures are adapted to a more workable formula prior to enforcement, which cannot take place until the European Commission has introduced a fully operational electronic system to manage the process, and this is not expected to happen for another five or six years. It will be at least two years before the EU confirms whether funding for the electronic system will even be in place. The money will only be forthcoming if it is deemed a priority in the EU’s 2021-27 budget.