(Feb. 26, 2021) On January 29, 2021, Minister for Digital and Culture Caroline Dinenage, upon the advice of the Reviewing Committee of the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) of the Arts Council, placed a temporary bar on the issuance of an export order for a watch designed by Abraham-Louis Breguet that was part of a collection owned by King George III and Queen Charlotte. The watch is valued at £2 million (approximately US$2.7 million), plus £400,000 (approximately US$550,000) in value-added tax (VAT), and considered to be an important type of watch that is not represented in any national collection across the U.K.
In announcing the temporary export bar, Dinenage stated that,
[w]ith the nation captivated by Bridgerton, there is no better time for this watch owned by George III to come to light. This rare specimen is beautifully crafted and would make an excellent addition to a UK collection. I hope that a buyer can be found so that the public can continue to be inspired by this exciting period of our history.
The temporary bar was put in place under the U.K.’s export controls, which require those wishing to export certain antiques over a certain value to obtain an export license from the RCEWA, which reviews the application and determines whether the item is “a national treasure because its departure from the UK would be a misfortune.” To make this determination, the RCEWA considers three criteria, known as the Waverly criteria:
1. Is the item closely connected with our history and national life?
2. Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?
3. Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?
The temporary bar on export is to provide museums and buyers the opportunity to raise money to purchase the item and keep it in the U.K. Until recently, this system operated under a “gentleman’s agreement,” which by design had no force of law. The gentleman’s agreement meant that, where these funds were raised, the seller should sell the item to U.K. buyers. In some instances, sellers refused to honor these agreements. As a result, in December 2020, new rules were introduced to prevent this from happening by requiring legally binding offers, so that once a U.K. institution steps forward with the required funds, the seller must proceed with the sale.
These are the first changes to the export bar system in 65 years, and the government stated they “reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the protection of our national treasures, owners’ rights, world-class museums, and the UK’s reputation as a successful international art market.”
The reason for the export system is multifaceted, and it
provide[s] an opportunity for the UK to retain cultural goods judged to be of outstanding national importance that would otherwise be exported and to provide a guarantee of the legality of the export. The system is designed to strike a balance, as fairly as possible, between the various interests concerned in any application for an export licence: the protection of national treasures; the rights of the owner selling the goods; the exporter or overseas purchaser; and the position and reputation of the UK as an international art market.