France Has Revised Its System for Exporting Art and Antiques, Removing Red Tape that Has Long Hindered Trade

The changes could make France more attractive as a market for overseas buyers in some key disciplines.

French border. Photo by Rolf Haid/picture alliance via Getty Images.

France has revised its national system for exporting cultural goods, dramatically expanding the ease of trade. The move is considered a major win for the country’s art industry.

The changes, which came into effect on January 1, raise the value thresholds at which an export certificate or “passport” must be obtained for a broad swathe of art, antiques, and collectibles. In some cases, the threshold has been doubled. 

Most paintings over 50 years old now don’t need a license unless they are valued at €300,000 or more, doubled from €150,000. For watercolors, pastels, and gouache works over 50 years old, the threshold has risen from €30,000 to €50,000. The threshold for original statuary or sculpture over 50 years old has also doubled, from €50,000 to €100,000, while the threshold for archaeological items rises from €1,500 to €3,000.

The thresholds for other categories like tribal art, books, and coins, remain unchanged.

The rules, which form part of the French Heritage Code and even apply to exports to other EU member states, operate in tandem with the European Union export licensing system.

Countries use export licensing systems to keep track of cultural goods that might be deemed at risk or of national importance and, as such, should not be exported without review. Value thresholds act as one method for determining what is important. By raising its thresholds significantly, France is effectively easing these checks.

The revisions to the export law in France also iron out differences in the way rules apply to countries beyond the European Union when it comes to temporary imports, and improve the digital facilities for becoming compliant.

The changes, which significantly reduce red tape barriers for the French art market, are the result of vigorous lobbying over the past decade from French trade representatives working closely with the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, the country’s largest association of art and antiques dealers.

“The threshold values have not changed since the export regime was implemented around 20 years ago,” SNA board member Anthony Meyer, a tribal art dealer based in Paris, says. “Over the intervening period, market values have doubled, tripled, quadrupled, and more. All the government is doing here is bringing the thresholds in line with modern values.”

The dealer adds that it is “unfortunate” that the threshold values for tribal art have not been revised, given that the category has seen an “unprecedented increase” in value over the past 15 years. “This is not good news for the tribal art market,” Meyer says.

The decision to revise the thresholds comes after years of difficulty processing high volumes of applications for export passports in France.

“The authorities were swamped with applications and have not been able to cope,” Meyer explains. “When you look at the object passport office in Paris, it has a director and at most three or four people dealing with requests at any one time. Add to that the fact that all applications have to be processed by hand, and that the process itself is long and cumbersome, and the result is that licenses that are supposed to take two to three weeks to process can take between six and nine months.”

Appealing the refusal of a certificate is also a long drawn-out process, with a 30-month delay before a new application can be made, and no allowance for compensation. Even then, dealers can only reapply if the item in question has not been set aside for compulsory purchase by the state or classified as an historic monument.

The problem was so acute that the SNA even offered to finance the digitization of the service itself, but was not allowed to because it is government-run. Now, however, steps are being taken internally to create an electronic applications option.

The president of the SNA, Anisabelle Berès, welcomes the changes, which she says clarify and simplify the law. Berès credited her organization and its fellow campaigners for working long and hard with other stakeholders to help bring them about.

The changes remove an entire tier of red tape for major parts of the art market in France—Europe’s second largest art market after the UK—leaving them only to meet EU export licensing obligations.

Clearly, art buyers will buy the art they want wherever they can find it. Still, this fairly dramatic revision of French regulations will make it more attractive as a market for overseas buyers in some key disciplines, which may provoke discussion among British art dealers about how to stay competitive post-Brexit.

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