In a Win for UK Antiquities Dealers, Britain Will Abandon the EU’s Strict Regulations on Importing Cultural Heritage Now That It’s Finalized Brexit

The regulations were conceived as a way to curb the illegal trafficking of cultural goods.

Visitors sit before the contentious Benin Bronzes at the British Museum in London. Photo by David Cliff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.
Visitors sit before the contentious Benin Bronzes at the British Museum in London. Photo by David Cliff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

In April 2019, the European Union passed an unprecedented set of rules governing the importation of cultural heritage from outside the continent. But whether or not Britain would honor those rules after its departure from the union last month remained an open question.

Now, it seems we have an answer: The UK will not adhere to the EU’s regulations on cultural goods.

“It had become clear to me in discussions with decision makers that the UK would not go ahead with the new law after Brexit,” Daniel Dalton, a former member of European Parliament and current chief executive of the British Chamber of Commerce in Brussels, told the Art Newspaper, which first reported the news. As a rapporteur member of Parliament, Dalton played a significant role in ushering the regulations through European Parliament in 2019.

“I wouldn’t say the UK is rejecting the EU rule,” Dalton told Artnet News. “It is just not going to apply it, which it is within its rights to do now.”

Conceived as a way to curb the illegal trafficking of cultural goods, which had become a source of finance for terrorist organizations, the EU’s 2019 law requires a special license for importers, one that can only be obtained with proof that their wares were legally exported from the country of origin. Most significantly, the law granted European officials  authority to “take any appropriate measure” in confiscating cultural goods imported without the proper documentation. 

Antiquities dealers throughout the continent lobbied against the law, arguing that it would put them at a disadvantage against competitors in other countries, especially those the United States, which have no such regulations in place.

Sculptures which form part of the Elgin Marbles, taken from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece at the British Museum in London, England. Photo by Graham Barclay, BWP Media/Getty Images.

Indeed, noting that the UK government has “consistently been skeptical” of the EU’s approach to this issue, Dalton suggested that Britain’s disavowal of the law could mean a leg up for its art market. “This puts the UK art market in a more attractive position as an international destination,” he said, “particularly in comparison with the EU. The EU law can be quite restrictive and that is going to have a negative impact on what can be imported into Europe.” 

Other observers agree, noting that not having to comply with the EU regulations lifts a financial and administrative burden off of UK dealers.

“Since the Brexit vote, there has been much conjecture and worry about the effect of Brexit on the UK art and antiques market, but with this rejection of the regulations, the UK is declaring that its art market is vibrant, trustworthy, and open for business,” says Tova Ossad, a London-based consultant for art transports, customs and logistics. “It means that the UK dealers and auction houses will not have to be subject to more levels of due diligence on top of the strict regulations that are already in place.”  

“However,” Ossad adds, “it is important to remember that UK dealers will still be subject to the rules when they are selling in the EU, such as consignments with EU dealers or at art fairs.”


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