Letters to the editor, March 2016

Export licence system still fit for purpose As a long-time supporter of both the Art Fund and the Tate, I would like to disagree respectfully with the views of Stephan Deuchar and Nicholas Serota on public fundraising campaigns. (“Tate director backs Art Fund’s call for UK export licence reform after Rembrandt fiasco,” The Art Newspaper, February 2016, p8).

The purpose of the export licence system is to see that works judged to fall within the Waverley criteria do not leave the UK. It does not specify whether they must remain here as either public or private property; the objective is simply to retain them within our geographical borders. This objective is achieved if an owner, after applying for an export licence, decides to withdraw the application and keep the work in the UK, as is their undoubted right; in fact, it could be argued that this is an ideal solution to the problem as it makes unnecessary the use of public or private funds to retain the work.

Of course, it is frustrating for anyone who has started to raise or to put aside funds to buy the work of art to find that their efforts have been wasted, but exactly the same is true for anyone who has been an underbidder at an auction, failed to buy a house because the owner decides to take it off the market, or launched an unsuccessful bid for a company. Life is full of such frustrations and people can and do change their minds.

The further down the path the potential purchaser has gone, the more intense the frustration, and I sympathise with the Art Fund or the Tate when they have reached the point of a public appeal, usually the penultimate stage of the acquisition process, and find that the owner is no longer willing to sell. However, even that does not create an insoluble problem as long as it is made clear to all donors that no donation under a level of, say, £5,000 will be returned to the donor even if the acquisition fails, but will be applied by the charity or museum to their usual objectives, particularly to another acquisition in the future.

The Waverley system has worked well and fairly over some 60 years and is the envy of the rest of the world in maintaining a balance between the different parties involved. Rather than attempting to change it, I would like to see the Art Fund moving away from the concept of “saving for the nation”, which seems increasingly anachronistic in a globalised world, and moving towards supporting those enterprising directors who seek out for their museums desirable and important acquisitions wherever and whenever they may be found.

—Julian Agnew, dealer, London