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The move comes as the Art Fund, as it is also known, has joined forces with the Museums Association to launch a new Code of Ethics.

When museums apply for a grant, the Art Fund has always required them to give a satisfactory account of an object’s previous history, including, where appropriate, evidence that it was legally exported from the country of origin. In the case of antiquities and ethnographic items, which might have been looted or illicitly traded, the Art Fund would not support objects that had appeared on the market without provenance dating back to 1970, the year the UNESCO Convention (on the Means of Prohibiting the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property) was introduced. Britain is due to accede to the Convention this summer.

The Art Fund decided to tighten its policy in 2001 when it received an application for a grant for a Minoan item being sold at auction, without any information on provenance published in the catalogue. Although it was said to have been in the vendor’s family for generations, no clear documentary evidence was available from the owner or the auctioneers.

The Art Fund’s new requirements for grant applications include:

• documentary evidence supporting the provenance; alternatively, a signed declaration by the vendor or the agent;

• documentary proof of provenance from the vendor via the auction house if provenance dating back to at least 1970 is not published in the sale catalogue; and

• details of the museum’s policy on the acquisition of items that might have been illegally excavated and/or illegally imported.

In formulating its new policy the Art Fund was given legal advice by Professor Norman Palmer, chairman of the Ministerial Advisory Panel on Illicit Trade.