United Kingdom

UK export licence office in controversial relocation

Art market trade body says move to Birmingham could hinder deals

LONDON. The chairman of the British Art Market Federation (BAMF), Anthony Browne, has condemned the planned removal of the art export licensing office from London to Birmingham next year under a government-instigated reorganisation, saying the move could upset a market worth £5bn a year. He called for an urgent review of the decision, which had left the art export industry “anxious and unhappy”.

The reorganisation of the Acquisitions, Exports and Loans Unit (AELU), which issues art export licences, was announced in June by the Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), the government agency responsible. It said the relocation would help provide an annual 30% saving in operating costs required by the government.

But Mr Browne warned against any change that might threaten Britain’s annual import-export trade in art and antiques—50% of the EU total and 40% of the global market. He said the AELU issues around 12,000 export licences each year, many of them for items from abroad consigned for sale in London and then re-exported. Only a tiny proportion of licences were potentially controversial.

“The efficient processing of both EU and UK export licences is a key factor in our international trade. Sales can often depend on the rapid processing of licences, and the AELU has a good record in answering the needs of the art market,” he wrote in a letter to the MLA.

“I am told that licences are routinely produced within two or three days…It is inconceivable that this level of services can be maintained if the AELU is located over 100 miles away from the centre of the art market.”

Mr Browne told The Art Newspaper that even a marginal slowing of licence-processing could have an adverse effect on international purchasers buying at London auctions. He said the BAMF would be quite happy with a “tried and tested” electronic system of issuing export licences that could just as well be administered from Birmingham. “We’re not just being antediluvian,” he added. But the AELU’s trial of such a system had not proved successful.

Mr Browne also pointed out that according to the government’s own figures, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport exceeded its target of posts to be moved out of London and south-east England by the end of last year. He said relocating the six posts to Birmingham would cost up to £400,000, so there would be no overall saving for ten years.

Ed Vaizey, the opposition’s arts spokesman, has said a Conservative government would review the decision.

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