Art of elegant bribery

Date: 03 Jun 2015

Bumblebee Design

Becky Shaw, solicitor, and Simon Fitzpatrick, partner at Boodle Hatfield say government efforts to prevent the export of important art works out of the UK has saved many national treasures from ending up in wrong hands.


We heard a lot of art is bought in the UK then used in foreign countries for gifts to the powerful rather than going to galleries or private collections. Do you know where the art goes to after being purchased in the UK?

This very point has been highlighted following the allegations of corruption made against FIFA, with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, reportedly giving a painting by Picasso to the president of UEFA in exchange for votes for Russia to host the World Cup Finals in 2018.

Preventing the export of important art works out of the UK is something the UK government takes very seriously. Certain cultural goods, typically those more than 50 years of age and valued above specified financial thresholds, require a license for export out of the UK, whether on a permanent or temporary basis. 

Dry as it sounds, this system is designed to provide an opportunity for the UK to retain certain cultural goods judged to be of outstanding national importance that would otherwise be exported.  In recent years, items saved for the nation under this scheme include the iconic Wedgwood Collection, a gold and gem set ring that belonged to Jane Austen, and Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s last self-portrait, all of which are now on display in museums.

Who are the big art buyers? Where do they come from?

Most buyers remain fiercely anonymous, which is why it caused such a stir when the winning bidder of Van Gogh’s painting L’Allee des Alyschamps placed his bid of $66.3million sitting in the room at Sotheby’s in jeans and a hooded jacket.  Another notable buyer is Sheika Mayassa Al Thani, who chairs Qatar Museums that manages the country’s art collection.  In recent years she has overseen the purchase of works by Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, and Cezanne’s “Card Players” (paying a record-setting $250m).  The Al Thani family is reported to have purchased Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger for a record price of $180m at Christie’s in May.

What trends do you see in the sector?

The ‘art as investment’ trend seems to be partly responsible for the increasingly high prices seen today, and with interest rates remaining low, this trend seems set to continue.

What are three most important things to know about the UK arts market?

Firstly, sellers at auction should make sure they give the auction house as much information as possible about their item, and communicate instructions clearly in writing, to the right person. Consignors should think about the best auction house, the best location, and the best time to sell their item, as well as the best price.
Secondly, buyers at auction should carefully consider the auctioneer’s terms and conditions of sale, as the buyer will have to rely on these if there are any problems following the sale, and the auctioneer will often seek to limit or exclude its liability.
Finally, for high value items, buyers may wish to undertake their own due diligence to satisfy themselves that the piece has been correctly catalogued. This may include provenance research and/or consulting external experts and scholars for a second opinion on attribution.