HC Deb 06 July 1961 vol 643 cc1864-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Peel.]

1.41 a.m.

Mr. Anthony Royle (Richmond, Surrey)

I wish to raise the matter of the export of works of art. I believe that this is the first debate on the subject that we have had for many years. I must apologise to my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary for keeping him up to this very late hour after he has had a long day on the Front Bench, but I am pleased that he is to reply to my few words because I know that he has a sympathetic interest in the arts.

The present system for the export of works of art was set up by the Waverley Committee, which reported in 1952. It has worked well for the past ten years, particularly in regard to sales by private treaty, but bearing in mind the great difference between sales by private treaty and sales by public auction, in my view there should be two separate sets of rules.

The recent controversy over the sale of the historic picture by Goya of the Duke of Wellington underlines certain difficulties encountered under the present rules. I wish to put forward certain suggestions for procedure at sales at public auctions where it might be desirable for works of art to be acquired for the nation. They will entail only minor modifications to the present system, and I ask my hon. Friend to give them his very careful consideration.

Before I detail the scheme, I want to make it clear that there are two important principles which must be maintained. First, as the Waverley Committee recommended, it must never be stated publicly prior to the auction that an application may be made to stop the export of a work of art. This safeguards the vendor and enables a fair market price to be obtained at the sale.

Secondly, the Government must make it clear that they will never bid at an auction, but, of course, they retain the right to claim an object at the final price realised if that object is considered part of the national heritage. This principle will ensure that the taxpayer is not penalised by the Government representative being bid up and thereby paying an inflated price. Galleries and museums will still be able to go and bid at auctions with their own funds.

The main scheme itself will be roughly as follows. First, keepers or directors of museums and galleries will watch carefully for objects of national interest which are likely to come up at sales. This system, indeed, is carried out, I understand, at the present time. If a work of art of national importance appears, the gallery or museum, after discussion with the Treasury, can decide to send a representative to the sale, preferably incognito.

The sale takes place, and immediately the object is knocked down, the representative of the museum or gallery will get to his feet and say "I claim this work of art on behalf of the nation if the purchaser intends to export it." This will reduce the feeling of disappointment which I think is experienced by a purchaser today. Perhaps after a great deal of time and expense, he finds days later that he may not be able to export the article that he has bought. I think that this possibly occurred to the purchaser of the picture of the Duke of Wellington by Goya.

After the auction the keeper or director applies immediately to the Treasury for finance if—and this is important—an expert licence is applied for from the Board of Trade by the purchaser. The Treasury, after the application, immediately instructs the reviewing committee on the export of works of art to meet. I would suggest that the present committee, which was set up under the Waverley Report, should continue to carry out this function. The committee will then recommend to the Chancellor—I emphasise "recommend"—within fifteen days whether the article should or should not be purchased for the nation.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be the first to agree with me that it is most important that we retain Ministerial responsibility. This again is underlined in the Waverley Report, which states in recommendation 22 on page 63 that Ministerial responsibility should continue. So the reviewing committee only recommends and it is up to the Chancellor to take the final decision.

In my view, the price to be paid will be the final price realised at the sale. This, I hope, will be a considerable temptation to my hon. Friend, because by working this system it is possible, and, I think, very likely, that a considerable saving will be made to the Treasury in that dealer's commission would not be guaranteed when bought by the trade for immediate export.

The Chancellor then has to decide whether to accept his committee's recommendation. I would suggest, that, again, a period of fourteen days should apply. The Chancellor has to decide within this period whether to accept its recommendation, and also to decide whether he is going to provide the money himself, whether the money will be obtained from perhaps charitable foundations or trusts, or perhaps some combination of both methods of finance.

I would suggest that the Treasury make a list—maybe it has one already—of sympathetic foundations and trusts which are willing and keen to purchase works of art for the nation, and this list should be kept at the Treasury and there should be a close liaison kept between the Chancellor and the trustees.

Now I move briefly to a point which I hope will be well received by my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary. This concerns the Land Fund. I suggest that this Fund should be used a little more generously in the future for the purchase of works of art. I have made a few investigations in the last few days and I find that it stands at about £10 million. Has my hon. Friend strong objections to perhaps preserving £2 million or £3 million of that sum as a reserve for the purchase of articles which are part of the national heritage? Perhaps my hon. Friend will consider this. I do not ask him to give a final reply on it tonight.

This scheme which I have sketched is, I again must stress, only a suggestion in principle. There may be objections. Indeed, perhaps my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Hobson) may have some. One objection that may be put forward is the time scale. Is twenty-eight days enough to take this very serious decision? I feel that it probably is sufficient.

Over the past years, the reviewing committee has proved itself to be a swift and efficient body. A gallery or museum would have been in touch with the Treasury before a sale, which will give more time, and, of course, will notify the reviewing committee of its intention to object or pre-empt at the sale itself. I have discussed the scheme with experts and have received almost unanimous support in principle. These experts are people who are involved under the present system as set up following the Waverley Committee's Report. They include a leading London dealer and a leading firm of auctioneers.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that some streamlining of the present regulations for the export of works of art following an auction sale is necessary. This scheme has several attractive points. First, it would ease the disappointment of the purchaser which is caused at present on many occasions, thereby encouraging important overseas buyers to come to this country and keep our art market, of which we are so proud, as the international centre of this trade.

Secondly, it would speed up the procedure considerably. Thirdly—and very important—it should enable works of art to be bought at a lower cost for the nation if and when the case arises. It would, of course, keep intact the present regulations for sale by private treaty. Finally, it is worth bearing in mind that this procedure would seldom have to be used. Indeed, the annual report of the reviewing committee for 1959-60 reports that only five cases came in front of the committee. Of these, four would have involved the use of this scheme. There must be a term to the period which we are experiencing at the present time of transfers of great masterpieces from private hands to national and provincial collections. It may continue for a further decade, and during that period fewer and fewer pictures, silver, fine furniture and manuscripts are likely to become available.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be sympathetic and I do ask him to consider this scheme carefully in order that we obtain for the nation the maximum proportion of these national treasures which our countrymen should have the opportunity to enjoy.

1.55 a.m.

Mr. John Hobson (Warwick and Leamington)

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle) has suggested a form of pre-emption in the auction room in which a buyer has to declare whether he intends to export or not. The only difficulty about that is that he may not know. He may buy to export, but not have an overseas purchaser. He may have instructions to buy and have exceeded the limit, and not know whether his principal is prepared to exceed the limit.

I wanted to ask the Financial Secretary a rather wider question on the subject of the export of works of art. He will remember that the Waverley Committee considered this matter against a background of extreme financial stringency and the necessity for controlling all movements of capital at a time when our economy was not nearly so free in the world markets. We have now removed and dismantled most of the restrictions on the movement of capital. Has the Treasury considered whether any ill-feelings by purchasers from overseas could be removed by dismantling the whole of the procedure by which one has to get licences for the export of works of art?

The present position is that we are net importers, both by number and value, of pictures from America. Many pictures bought by American museums are now being returned to this country to be sold in auction rooms here and to be bought by private collectors in this country. Has any consideration been given to a substantial dismantling of all those controls which only impede the free flow of works of art both into and out of this country?

Mr. A. Royle

In regard to my hon. Friend's first point, when a dealer makes a purchase at an auction sale and intends to put that picture into stock and sell it at a later date, the ordinary scheme laid down in the Waverley Report comes into effect when in due course he comes to sell it. I cannot agree with the other suggestion by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Hobson) for the dismantling of present controls.

1.59 a.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Sir Edward Boyle)

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle) has done the House a considerable service by raising this important matter, and I am glad to have the opportunity to state the Government's present practice and to make one or two comments on what my hon. Friend has said.

The present system of control of the export of works of art is designed as far as possible to reconcile the legitimate conflict of interest which may arise between those who are concerned with the buying and selling of works of art, on the one hand, and, on the other, the broader interests of the nation in retaining, so far as is practicable, its national heritage of great artistic works. It is very important in considering this question to bear both those aspects in mind.

As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Hobson) said, the control of the export of works of art has nothing to do with exchange control. It exists only to protect the national heritage of objects of historical or aesthetic importance which might otherwise be dispersed. However, I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend that this country now has what is probably the most important art market in the world. While I do not want to get on to this in detail tonight, many of the arguments in the past used in favour of free trade as an economic theory have some rele- vance when considering this issue of the control of export of works of art.

One thing I would make plain, because I think that there is sometimes misunderstanding about it, is that it has never been Government policy to try to ensure that major works of art sold in the United Kingdom should all be acquired by public collections.

The export control is not designed to this end, although it does tend sometimes to have this effect. Nor is it part of export control policy to secure important pictures more cheaply for public collections.

The real purpose of export control is to help to keep some of the more important works of art, of National Gallery standard, which clearly belong to the national heritage, inside this country. If a major work of art which has been in the country for some years is put up for sale, the Government's direct interest is fully met if it is bought by a private citizen in the United Kingdom. I think that it is wrong for the Exchequer to provide most of the money needed to acquire even the most important pictures for public collections through the special grant procedures while there is any private individual or organisation able and willing to buy them.

The question whether a special grant could be given for the purchase of a picture by a public collection is always a difficult one, and each case has to be considered separately on its merits. So far as the competence of Treasury Ministers to pronounce on those merits is concerned, we try to get the best advice we can, and I am not sure whether differing Treasury Ministers are likely to differ more acutely than some of the experts. We simply do our best.

It would be quite wrong for anyone to assume, particularly in present circumstances, that the Government accept any obligation to contribute to the cost of any work of art which may be for sale in this country, even one in respect of which the reviewing committee withholds the licence. The national collections can draw on a certain amount of resources. Purchase grants for the current financial year made to the 13 national collections in this country totalled £364,000. Since the beginning of the financial year 1959–60, the Government have authorised special grants totalling more than £500,000. With these resources the national collections can do much on their own account to protect the national heritage.

It is natural that in this context we think mainly about pictures, but at times we give special grants for other works of art as well. I hope that always we shall remember the needs not only of the great national collections in London but also the needs of the provinces. While I do not want to get into too much detail, there is no harm in saying that one of the reasons why the Government were so ready to give a special grant to the Walker Art Gallery, in Liverpool, through the machinery of the Victoria and Albert Museum purchase grant for museums in the regions, was that we were so much impressed by special efforts that Liverpool had made to help itself. It is always a good principle, when one is required to help local bodies, to help those who have been effective in helping themselves.

Mr. John Walker, Director of the Washington National Gallery, in his address to the National Art Collections Fund, suggested that the national collections should be given an opportunity to buy an object, at a fair price to be negotiated with the owner, before an auction took place, but that, when once they had had an opportunity but had not taken it up, if the object were to be sold at a higher price and exported, an export licence should be automatically granted.

The difficulty of that would be the negotiation of the fair price, which might place the national collection in a very difficult position. It might be tempted to pay more for an object than it was sure it was worth because it would know that if it did not, it might be lost to the nation. And the owner might be tempted to stand out for a higher price because he would have little or nothing to lose if the negotiations failed and the picture went to auction. It might surprise the House to know how high a value owners of works of art are apt to place on their own pictures, even those of relatively mediocre merit, when there is any question of their acquisition with money provided by the taxpayer.

I come now to say a word about my hon. Friend's plan, which contains a number of interesting features. He kindly sent me an outline of what he intended to propose, and I will gladly arrange for his plan to be studied. At first sight, I am doubtful whether the new arrangements which my hon. Friend proposes will significantly remove the uncertainties which, as I see it, must necessarily beset the purchase by overseas buyers of works of art coming within the special scrutiny category.

The present procedure has been in operation for nearly ten years, and foreign buyers must by now be well aware of its purpose and of the way in which it operates. Under the new procedure which my hon. Friend has proposed, it seems to me that the foreign purchaser at an auction would still not know for some time whether he was going to pay out the money.

But I am more concerned with the position of the Treasury, which under my hon. Friend's plan would, I think, be somewhat invidious. It must be remembered always that it is the trustees of the national collections and not the Treasury who purchase such pictures on behalf of the State. The Treasury may make special grants, but it is the trustees who make the purchase, and if, as suggested by my hon. Friend, the gallery authorities consult the Treasury before laying claim to a picture at the auction, this means that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer must always make up his mind about the often very difficult question of a special grant, if one is needed, before the picture is auctioned.

I am doubtful about that. I am inclined to think not only that this is something which the Treasury ought not to try to do, but I have a feeling that it could be shown to be inconsistent with the Treasury's responsibility to this House for the proper maintenance of public expenditure. I do not want to sound too pompous about this at two o'clock in the morning, but I am not sure that the Public Accounts Committee could not with some justification criticise the procedure suggested by my hon. Friend. I will arrange for my hon. Friend's interesting proposals to be looked at, and when we have had more time to examine them I will write to him and give him a considered view.

The reconciliation of the interests of British owners, foreign purchasers in our all-important international market, and our national heritage remains a difficult problem, but on the credit side I think that it can fairly be claimed that the reviewing committee scheme is working reasonably well and with impartiality.

A major test of the importance of an item—whether a public collection can raise the necessary funds to buy it if an export licence is withheld for a period to enable this to be done—is applied in each case when the committee advises that in accordance with the Waverley criteria it is a work of national importance.

In answer to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Hobson), it seems to me that twelve licences withheld in three years is a rather small proportion of the total number of overseas sales on the London. art market, though I realise that the very fact of this procedure must itself cause a certain amount of uncertainty.

At the same time, the present export control system has been the means of retaining in this country a number of significant works of art which public collections have acquired at a fair price and which are now on display to the general public of this country. My feeling is that given the acknowledged difficulty of trying to reconcile what are in a sense irreconcilables, the present system of control over the export of works of art does not work too badly, and causes, I hope and believe, the minimum amount of inconvenience to the various parties with their different interests in the system.

This is a subject to which we at the Treasury attach considerable importance. The work of the Treasury in respect of the arts, the museums and national collections is among our important work there, especially at a time when there is more interest, not least among younger people, in art in this country than ever before. I assure the House that we shall always try to reconcile the important demands of the art market, which is a feature of the nation today, with our efforts to secure for the nation those pictures which we think are works of art which ought to form part of the nation's heritage.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Two o'clock.