According to two well-placed sources, the UK will not be continuing with the new import licensing regulations for cultural property introduced by the European Union in 2019 and due to be enforced by 2025.

Aimed at preventing crime – in particular terrorism financing – the controversial law faced stiff opposition from the art market, which argued that its compliance measures would make business impossible for many dealers, auction houses and collectors.

The notion that the UK would not continue with the regulation first arose during the Art Newspaper’s December 11 Brexit podcast. While being interviewed on likely events to come, former MEP and current CEO of the British Chamber of Commerce in Brussels Daniel Dalton said that the UK would not be going ahead with the law.

Mr Dalton is an authority on the matter as he was one of two rapporteur MEPs who guided the measures through the European Parliament, and he consulted widely with the art market to take its concerns into account.

His statement on the podcast led to a phone call with British Art Market Federation chairman Anthony Browne, who said: “I have received clear assurances on this from ministers that the UK will not continue with the regulation.”

One snag, however, is that the most controversial part of the new regulations, Article 3:1, passed into law in the UK on December 28, 2020. It effectively removes any back stop on the seizure and return of goods illegally removed from their source countries.

This would mean that anything from paintings to pots exported hundreds of years ago, or even longer, in breach of local laws of the time can be confiscated and returned under the measures, regardless of subsequent good faith purchase, treaty and convention considerations or the normal statutes of limitation.

Implications of new law

Such a far-reaching power is arguably unprecedented in the history of the art market, with serious implications for property rights and business, yet entreaties by the European Art Market Coalition, an EU-wide lobbying group for the market, fell on deaf ears when it raised the matter with the European Commission.

However, the UK Government’s decision not to proceed with the regulation means that Article 3:1 along with the rest of the regulation would not apply; presumably action will be taken at a later date to amend/rescind it.

This does not mean that UK authorities would permit any free-for-all at ports, however, just that action by Customs would be taken on the basis of intelligence gathering rather than on the basis of whether or not a valid export licence from a source country accompanied relevant imports – a requirement that it is frequently impossible to meet for understandable reasons.

“It had become clear to me in discussions with decision makers that the UK would not go ahead with the new law after Brexit,” Mr Dalton said in the New Year.

With no similar regulations in the United States, the world’s leading art market, this would appear to put the EU at a competitive disadvantage as trade between the UK and US will not be restricted by the measures in the same way that it will be between either of those markets and the EU.