Long overdue revolution in Italian fine art export law is about to happen

Stefano Pirovano  -  April 10, 2017

At last the moment has arrived. Thanks to an article included in the competition law that the Italian Parliament is likely to approve soon, Italian artworks with estimated value under € 13.500 would no longer need the official document called “attestato di libera circolazione” to leave the Country (but staying within UE), or the “licenza di esportazione definitiva” to be sold outside the UE – namely the official clearance of permanent exportation currently required for artworks with estimated value over € 140.000. Furthermore, the time limit for free exportation has been moved from 40 years since the artwork has been executed to 70 years. Is this the revolution the Italian fine art dealers and collectors were waiting for? We wouldn’t say that is enough, but it is another sign things are changing also in the European most conservative country.

Protests arose last week among those art historians and scholars who are still defending the current hyper market restrictive system, that same system which has forced most of the leading Italian art dealers to open their galleries in London and has contributed to keep Italian works of art undervalued for many years. But, as the Italian Minister of Culture Dario Franceschini underlined in a letter to his opponents, they should not be worried about the new rules – which, by the way, would questionably affect from the outside the Italian “Codice dei beni culturali”, that is the group of laws concerning the cultural heritage. With due regard for Italian Constitution’s article 9, which states the Republic has to protect the cultural heritage and landscape, all the masterpieces currently in the collection of the Italian public art museums and those in private hands already named of primary cultural interest by the “Notifica” – which is a piece of legislation permitting the Italian Government to permanently prohibit the exportation of an artwork, even if in private hands and without buying it -, will stay in the Country and be available for the future generations of its citizens.

If the new rule was approved as it is, no private individual would be allowed to export a piece of art in his property – if the piece is eligible to that – only by notifying the exportation to the Soprintendenza, which is the Cultural Ministry deputed office which will spot check these self-certifications. In this regard the opponents’ concern is that fraudulent art dealers may declare lower values and give fake attributions to pieces in order to get the permission to export them. But that would be extremely risky in the hyper-connected digital world we are living in, also for that artworks will be granted an official passport and on-line register – this measure is currently in the making. On the other side, any new measure has been announced yet to empower the supervising offices, the so called Soprintendenze, despite their chronic lack of money and personnel.

Concerning artworks, it must be said that the Italian exportation threshold is the lowest in the EU. In France no official permission is required for artworks under € 150.000, while in Germany the limit is € 300.000 for pieces less than 75 years old. In the UK the exportation of any important work of art is ruled by the so called three Waverly Criteria, verified by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest. If a piece is classified as a national treasure, and the owner is selling it out of the Country, the Government has 6 months to find the money, step in and ultimately buy it. But if no money is available the piece is allowed to leave. In Italy, as we wrote above, the “Notifica” still allows the Government to forbid the exportation of a piece, even if in private hands. It is actually a restriction of the private property conceived in order to prevent foreigner buyers and keep the artworks at home.