£7.6m of national treasures saved from export in two years - Museums Association

£7.6m of national treasures saved from export in two years

Report details how temporary deferrals kept ‘outstanding’ items in UK’s public collections
Francesca Collins
This sculpture of a large anthropomorphic crab was saved from export and now resides at The Box, Plymouth
This sculpture of a large anthropomorphic crab was saved from export and now resides at The Box, Plymouth The Box, Plymouth

A new Arts Council England report outlines the £7.6m of “national treasures” saved from export by the intervention of their Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest.

The report covers both 2018-19 and 2019-20, after the arts council chose not to publish the 2018-19 report during the Covid-19 crisis.

At the committee’s recommendation, the secretary of state was able to put in place temporary export deferrals for 34 works of art and items of cultural interest with an aggregate value of £119.4m. Twelve of these were subsequently purchased by UK institutions.

Items saved include examples of fine art, but also items that are symbolic of the history and national identity of the UK, offering scope for further research and learning.

Some of the saved items
  • The notebooks of Charles Darwin’s mentor, Charles Lyell, which were acquired by the University of Edinburgh
  • An annotated copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover used by the judge who presided over the 1960 obscenity trial, acquired by the University of Bristol
  • A large anthropomorphic ceramic crab sculpture, an example of the work of the Martin Brothers, acquired by The Box in Plymouth
  • The flag and sledge from Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition to the Antarctic in 1909, which have been acquired by the National Maritime Museum and the Scott Polar Research Institute

Hayden Phillips, chairman of the committee, said: “The committee has had the privilege to consider a diverse array of impressive and fascinating items over the last two years. I am delighted that a number of these exceptional objects have been purchased by UK institutions. The support of funding bodies continues to be paramount in allowing these ‘national treasures’ to remain in public collections for current visitors and future generations to enjoy.”


Cultural objects of more than 50 years of age, and above a certain price, require a licence for export out of the UK. When an expert adviser objects to an export licence application, the case is referred to the reviewing committee. The committee then advises the secretary of state for culture, media and sport on whether an item is of national importance under specified criteria.

If the object meets one or more of the criteria, the committee recommends that the case is deferred. The secretary of state then places a temporary export bar on the item, which allows organisations and individuals in the UK time to fundraise to purchase it.

Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England, said: “This report gives an insight into how vital the work of the reviewing committee in drawing attention is to works of art and objects of national significance that are threatened with export. I am delighted that 12 national treasures have been retained by UK institutions at a challenging time for fundraising.

“As the sector reopens, we look forward to people across the country once again being able to enjoy the nation’s public collections in person.”

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden expressed that he is “delighted” that the saved items “have now been protected for future generations to enjoy and learn from”.

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