Art in the EU

16 September 2019 By Laura Dunn

On June 7, EU Regulation 2019/880 became official. The regulation severely limits the import of ancient art, books, manuscripts, and antiques into the European Union. This took two years to come to fruition, but won’t be fully in effect until 2024–2026, when it will act as a de facto ban of the import of antiquities in 28 EU nations. The ban was made into law in an effort to combat looting in unstable or war-torn countries.

The regulation restricts import and export of items that are more than 200 years old. To pass through the area, there must be documentation of lawful export from the source country. If that is not possible, the exporter must provide documentation from a second country where it has resided for at least five years. How this will hurt or help is yet to be seen, but it is theorized that auction houses, small art galleries, and legitimate traders will be hurt the most. Already, these businesses are subject to other import and export regulations.

Karolina Blasiak, an art advisor for Rosemont International, says the regulation was specifically drawn up in an attempt to stop illicit trafficking of antiquities — a perceived source of income for terrorists and organized crime groups. “For the superyacht industry, as well as for the transport companies, this will increase the administrative burden on what are mostly small and medium-sized businesses but, more worryingly, the regulation will prevent the import of many archaeological and historic artefacts that are legitimately circulating on the art and antiques market,” she says, pointing out that legal sanctions were already in place to protect at-risk countries and could simply have been extended. “Instead, the EU has delivered a considerable blow to the legitimate art market while adding to its own financial and administrative burdens,” she says.

The antiquities trade is particularly concerned about the specifics of the evidence that the EU now requires. All EU countries are expected to adopt implementing acts within two years — the regulation can only be implemented through an online application system. To become fully operational, a unified electronic system for requesting import licenses must be in place. Once that is done, the electronic system must be complete within four years after that — by 2026 at the latest — which is why the import licensing requirement will be deferred until 2024 or 2026. At that time, the custom laws across the EU will be harmonized and ready for the online system.

For those against this regulation, the hope is that the newly elected members to the European Parliament will take a new look at the unrealistic expectations and modify them.  

A major concern is if this can really work as hoped. Blasiak says that in many cases (if not most), it will likely prove to be impossible to provide proof of past legal export due to several factors: how far back in time the original export might have taken place, the difficulty in identifying when that was, “and the likelihood that no information exists on what relevant laws applied at the time and the almost certain lack of paperwork.”

The art trade in these affected regions have conducted and submitted evidence based on police and World Customs Organization data. Unfortunately, Parliament has ignored it. They’ve even proceeded with the final regulations before waiting on the results of their own commissioned study — a “Study on improving knowledge about illicit trade in cultural goods in the EU, and the new technologies available to combat it,” which was commissioned by the EU Parliament in 2017. Results are still not in.

Photo credit: Fiona Tan