What to Consider before Buying Art Abroad

By Grant, Daniel | Consumers' Research Magazine, October 1996 | Go to article overview
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What to Consider before Buying Art Abroad


Grant, Daniel, Consumers' Research Magazine


Most foreign travelers return from their jaunts with photographs, maybe a little stomach ailment, and some souvenirs: A statuette, old vase, wood carving, or a painting--every country has its own character that is translated into the monuments in its public squares, ornaments on its churches, and images in its works of art.

Collecting rare and interesting objects is one of the joys of traveling abroad, but people of many countries are net so happy to be picked clean by tourists. They see the American vacationer's desire for mementos as a form of plunder, a laiasez-faire banditry that robs them of their national treasures and cultural artifacts. They feel their "patrimony"--their national sense of self--is at stake.

Leaders of countries around the world have responded with laws to protect their art and ancient artifacts and keep them within their borders. Many nations of the Third World as well as some communist countries have established wholesale embargoes of all art from their borders. Others, such as Greece, Iran, Mexico, Turkey, and Central and South America, have adopted wide-ranging restrictions covering art and artifacts from certain areas dating back a certain number of years.

Some of the nations of western Europe offer a different sort of object lesson in frustration. England, France, Italy, and Spain require the export of works of art or antiquity to be overseen by three or four different governmental agencies, any one of which may veto a sale or shipment. The decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, so no general rules can be ascertained. It can take up to a year for an export license to be granted or denied, requiring collectors either to plan for a long vacation or to learn the ropes.

The art and antiquities in question need not be of any great value, merely old enough to be deemed in need of protection by the foreign government. The rules change from one country to the next, but that is not the only thing that could confuse the buyer. The nations with embargoes and restrictions often have considerable black market activity, and the sellers of this contraband will seek to persuade tourists that desired pieces aren't a problem to take out of the country. An explorer may come upon an as-yet undiscovered ancient ruin (there are many in Turkey, for instance, and in Africa) but find to his dismay that the native government lays claim to objects it never previously knew existed. The same is true for finds in coastal waters. Added to this is the fact that U.S. Customs obeys some claims by foreign governments and ignores others.

The easiest works to buy and take home with you are those of the 20th century, especially pieces created since the end of the Second World War. The hardest are the Old Masters or antiquities over 100 years old. In Europe, the hardest countries in which to buy antiques and art are England, France, Italy, Spain, and Turkey. The easiest countries in which to buy art and bring it home are the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany. (Switzerland is a frequent stop for collectors as many European dealers, frustrated at the difficulties in selling to outside collectors, have moved their galleries to Zurich. The market there, unencumbered by state regulations, is thriving nicely.)

In Holland and Germany, it is a general rule of thumb that anything one can buy may be taken out of the country. One-needs to show (as in any country) a "declaration of exportation," basically a detailed receipt listing what the object is, its value, and when it was purchased.

The Germans export approximately one-third of their gross national product and are reluctant to create export restrictions. The only items that may require an export license are weapons and nuclear fuels.

Holland's legislature periodically has discussed applying protections to the export of certain works of art, but it has never gone further than talking. It is somewhat irrelevant anyway, as most of the important works still in Holland by the country's most esteemed artists--Hals, Rembrandt, and Vermeer--are already in the possession of the national museum.

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