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The proposed measures, taking the form of 16 recommendations put to the Government by a panel of experts appointed by Arts Minister Alan Howarth, also include UK accession to the UNESCO Convention tightening, among other controls, the export licensing of cultural objects.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the panel’s report is that it has been drawn up under the agreement of both the trade and academe/institutions. And both the minister and the panel members were keen to emphasise the importance of the trade to the British economy. As panel chairman Professor Norman Palmer, barrister and Professor of Commercial Law at University College London, told the press at the report’s launch, traditionally opposing interests had seen “eye to eye” rather than faced each other “eyeball to eyeball” on its contents.

The proposed criminal offence would cover dishonestly importing, dealing in or being in possession of any cultural object, knowing or believing that the object was stolen, or illegally excavated, or removed from any monument or wreck contrary to local law. This differs significantly from the recent Select Committee proposal, which called for a similar offence to be introduced based on due diligence, which would have left the trade vulnerable to prosecution for not carrying out correct procedure rather than for knowingly dealing illicitly.

Other significant recommendations include:

• the establishment of an art and antiques unit with a national remit, staffed by officers who would serve longer tenures than current limits allow so that their expertise is not lost;
• the setting up of a global database of unlawfully removed cultural objects, administered by the Home Office, with differing levels of access for the trade, institutions, private individuals and the authorities;
• the setting up of a database of legislation, available to all who trade in cultural objects, detailing local laws from around the world;
• the abandonment of local legislation, such as the Kent County Council Bill, for the regulation of the secondhand goods market and the introduction of public legislation on a national basis instead.

Funding could be the one stumbling block. While the Minister was enthusiastic in his praise and support for the panel and its findings, he could not commit himself to details of how any of the measures would be paid for and referred to Government departments seeing what they could do with “existing resources”. However, he was confident that several of the measures, such as acceding to the UNESCO Convention, could happen quickly as he expected widespread support in Whitehall.

One of the most beneficial outcomes of the report, whatever the funding status, is the bringing together of all the key points from the codes of practice of the major trade organisations under the British Art Market Federation banner.

Entitled Principles of Conduct of the UK Art Market adopted by the British Art Market Federation, the guidelines set out due diligence practice, and conclude with a firm commitment on behalf of member organisations to deal firmly with breaches of the principles.

BAMF chairman Anthony Browne, also a member of the panel of experts who drew up the Ministerial report, summed up the importance of the guidlines as showing the trade adopting clear rules on a self-regulatory basis. “There is nothing in the panel’s recommendations that runs contrary to these guidelines, so anyone sticking to the guidelines will cover all the recommendations,” he told the Antiques Trade Gazette. “All BAMF members have signed up to this.” And he reiterated a point stressed by both Professor Palmer and the Minister: “The panel was a very good meeting of minds. What we wanted to do was to drive a wedge between what is a legal trade that is beneficial to the economy and an illicit trade of people who should not be doing business.”