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Tate admits error in giving away confidential export data as archive is offloaded to Paul Mellon Centre

The photographic archive of paintings was transferred in haste - twice

The Tate is now trying to recover records from a photographic archive containing confidential data on a thousand privately owned paintings. The gallery transferred this sensitive material, which came from UK export licence applications, to London’s Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art four years ago, where it is publicly available.

Tate Britain made a rushed decision in 2008 to dispose of a photographic archive on 25,000 British paintings that curators had painstakingly built up over nearly a century, the Guardian newspaper reported in February. Up to 10% of this material related to privately owned pictures for which export licences applications had been lodged. These images and accompanying information had been supplied by government ministries so that Tate curators could give expert advice.

The export-licence photographs, which are mounted on orange cards, include the names and addresses of both the UK exporter and foreign importer. The value of the painting is indicated in code, which is easily decipherable.

Tate Britain had been on the verge of throwing away its photographic archive when the Paul Mellon Centre was alerted and the Tate agreed to give it the material. Brian Allen, the centre’s director, recorded at the time that it was “extraordinary” that a national institution could be “so cavalier” about the disposal of this archive.

Staff at the Paul Mellon Centre immediately realised that the records contained sensitive export data, and they alerted the Tate. In November 2008, the Tate sent a junior employee to weed the files, but the gallery gave her only a day to sort through the 25,000 images. She reported that she had “got halfway through the boxes so I think one of my colleagues will have to take over”. No one was sent to complete the task, which means there are still around 1,000 orange cards in the open archive.

Two years ago, Tate Britain approached the Paul Mellon Centre to offer a further 4,500 mounted export-licence application photographs. The centre responded positively, but just as the material was about to be collected, a problem arose. In April 2010 a Tate administrator emailed the centre, writing: “Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) lawyers have advised that Tate cannot pass the cards to the Paul Mellon Centre without exposing itself to the risk of prosecution for breach of the [2003 Export] Order.” The administrator concluded that “the cards and photos will have to be shredded as confidential waste”.

Last month a DCMS spokesman said that the duty of confidentiality under the 2003 Export of Objects of Cultural Interest Order extended to anyone who received information for “a permitted purpose”, such as an expert adviser.

Arts Council England, which now administers the export regulations, states that the 2003 Export Order imposes a duty of confidentiality. Expert advisers and those involved in administration “must not disclose any details of the application to a third party”, without authorisation—and “if there is a breach of confidence, the confider may have the right to take action through the courts.”

A Tate spokeswoman now admits that in 2008 “some confidential material inadvertently got sent” to the centre and “the retrieval process was not completed at the time”. She says: “The remaining confidential material is now in the process of being returned to the Tate.”

A Paul Mellon Centre spokesman says that the DCMS has now “told the Tate to ask us to remove and destroy the confidential photographs”. But he believes this is unnecessary, since the confidential information could be redacted. The centre is reluctant to return the archival material to the Tate because of concerns that the gallery “will simply destroy it”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Tate admits error in giving away confidential export data'