Northern Ireland's art market mired in post-Brexit confusion

Experts fear country could become "gateway to Europe for illicit cultural property", while new asset seizure powers—which include art—are being introduced to help criminal investigations into unexplained wealth


Northern Ireland’s art market is facing post-Brexit confusion, while new asset seizure powers (which encompass art) are being introduced to support criminal investigations into unexplained wealth.

The UK National Committee of the Blue Shield, a voluntary body that aims to protect cultural heritage, raised concerns in May, when the UK began to repeal the EU’s Import of Cultural Goods Regulations (2019), but not Northern Ireland (NI). While the repeal has largely been welcomed by the art trade, given its onerous obligations to ensure artefacts are not illicitly exported from their origin country, experts say the move could assist antiquities trafficking.

“Checks for artefacts moving from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland would need to be carried out by the UK Border Authorities for Northern Ireland,” says Fionnuala Rogers, the president of the UK National Committee of the Blue Shield. “But, despite the risk highlighted as to NI becoming a gateway to Europe for illicit cultural property, the UK government continues to maintain that they won’t change the way import checks are handled, relying instead on intelligence.”

Rogers adds: “It also seems that no consideration has been given as to how Northern Ireland will operate checks on goods coming from outside the EU and whether this will be left to Northern Ireland to implement or whether the UK will carry the burden.”

Lack of clarity

A House of Lords debate in June brought little clarity. “How have we got to a situation where one of the most complicated issues about
the pursuit of cultural goods is different in one territory of the UK
from the rest?” asked Lord Stevenson of Balmacara.

Unconnected to Brexit, a rollout of updated seizure powers and revised guidance to assist NI enforcement agencies came into force this summer. Designed to enable unexplained wealth to be used as a tool in criminal investigations, the guidance details the use of powers attached to the Proceeds of Crime Act (2002) and the Criminal Finances Act (2017).

In the rest of the UK, these powers have seen multiple seizures, including: the reported confiscation of £1m worth of paintings by the Scottish artist Peter Howson in 2009 during a investigation into the drugs dealer William O’Neil; more than £2.4m of art and antiques seized by officers investigating Stephen Jellis, convicted for fraud and money laundering in Northampton in 2017; and the 2019 freezing of assets of gold tycoon James Stunt, including a sizeable art collection (some of which is allegedly fake).

Lord Dodds of Duncairn was clear on the significance of these powers, stating in the House of Lords that the measures “will unlock better outcomes against organised criminality, protect our economy and reduce harm in those communities that are particularly affected by organised crime gangs and paramilitarism”.

On another note, Northern Ireland’s confused economic situation is also causing great instability for artists. In August, the chairman of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Liam Hannaway, called for “immediate support” for the sector, to tackle the “financial insecurity for those working in the creative industries”.