If a French national museum wishes to buy a work of art at auction, it simply exercises its 'right of pre-emption'. Substituting itself for the final bidder, which is what this means, is less fair than it sounds - word invariably gets out about the museum's intentions and few bother to bid. In France, as in Italy, Germany and Spain, any work of art deemed of national importance cannot legally leave its shores, a circumstance which once again significantly reduces its market value. Good news for the cultural patrimony, perhaps, but rather less cheery for the owner. Britain's approach, in contrast, is the most liberal in Europe - its system of controlling the export of national treasures while acknowledging the property rights of the individual is peerless. The only problem is that it no longer protects our national heritage.
In 1950, in an attempt to stem the flood of works of art being sold - principally to America - from bankrupted landed estates, the Chancellor of the Exchequer appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Lord Waverley to advise on government export policy and a mechanism for implementing it. Thus the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art was born. This week, this independent advisory body - now under the aegis of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport - celebrated its 50th anniversary at a party attended by the great and good at Spencer House. It was, as its chairman since 1995, Sir John Guinness, put it, as much a wake as a celebration.
The good news is that, since its inception, the Waverley system has been responsible for saving for the nation some 300 items -paintings, drawings, sculpture, silver, ceramics, furniture, textiles, armour, manuscripts and books - ranging from the likes of the mediaeval Middleham Jewel, which went to the Yorkshire Museum, to Canova's 'Three Graces' (shared by Edinburgh and the V&A) and a John Donne letter now at the Bodleian Library. No less critically, its very existence has ensured solutions for countless other items at risk without recourse to the Reviewing Committee safety net.
But anyone blithely presuming that anything like Holbein's great iconic portrait of Henry VIII, which Earl Spencer sold to Baron Thyssen-Bornemisa through Agnew's in 1934, could now never leave these shores, should think again. Only last year, a unique and unpublished manuscript treatise addressed and presented to Henry VIII in 1530 by the Carmelite friar Giacomo Calso of Pavia slipped through this safety net. Concerned with the question of the king's divorce - Calso argues that conscience takes moral priority over the Pope - the treatise, which the king had lavishly bound by his favourite binder, was described by the curator of manuscripts at the British Library as contributing significantly to one of the most decisive events in English history - an event that turned us into a Protestant country.
As for the ones that got away over the last 50 years, the list is far, far longer - a litany that reads like a lament. Remember the Badminton Cabinet, the Old Master drawings from Chatsworth and Holkham? There are pictures by Fra Bartolomeo, Rembrandt, Poussin and Jan Brueghel the Elder, and furniture designed by Robert Adam or made by Chippendale. The flow of items out of Britain has not been stemmed; far from it, the country is haemorrhaging works of art, archaeological, ethnographical and scientific material. Between 1 July 2001 and 30 June 2002 alone, 10,000 items were licensed for export after reference to expert advisers, their value £1.15 billion. Only a tiny percentage, of course, can be described as of national importance. But the fate of even these is alarming.
In the same year, just 34 cases were referred to the Export Reviewing Committee to determine whether an export licence should be temporarily stopped to allow a UK institution - or private individual -time to raise matching funds. This independent body, which draws on the advice of specialists from national museums and elsewhere as well as on the varied expertise of its own members, deferred all but three. Their decision is based on applying the so-called Waverley criteria: Is the object so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune? Is it of outstanding aesthetic interest? Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history? An object need meet only one criterion to be deemed of national importance.
Of the 31 deferred cases, 23 - that is 74 per cent - were not exported, thanks to the energy and determination of the relevant museums and support from the likes of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the National Art Collections Fund. Crucially, however, the value of those items retained was £5.2 million; the value of those finally granted an export licence, £13.4 million. The point of relaying these statistics is that the heritage lobby is not in the habit of crying wolf. And when it does raise a hue and cry over very expensive objects - those costing over £1 million - the sound almost invariably falls on deaf ears. It is a problem that can only get worse as owners grow increasingly tempted by the vast prices raised by major works of art. Indeed, the system is at crisis point already.
By last Christmas, the value of items appearing before the Reviewing Committee was over £30 million - higher than in any 12-month period over the past decade - thanks in large part to the inclusion of Reynolds's magisterial portrait of the 'Noble Savage' Omai - as telling a testimony to the spirit of an age as any work of art could be. That figure now stands at over £60 million following the Arts Minister Baroness Blackstone's decision to defer an export licence for the sale of Raphael's 'Madonna of the Pinks' from Alnwick Castle to the Getty Museum.
The problem is mainly due to lack of funds readily accessible for heritage causes, not least since the remit of the Heritage Lottery Fund has broadened. But that, of course, is due to lack of political will. In its annual report, the Reviewing Committee recommends a number of sound stratagems to alleviate the current crisis - from calling for Gift Aid to charities (which most museums are) to be extended to gifts of chattels, and increasing the so-called douceurs to owners who sell their chattels through private treaty sales to UK museums and galleries to reactivating the use of Exchequer grants as a last resort (we await to see what will happen to the request for an Exchequer grant for the Alnwick Raphael). But rather than tinker with the tax laws, why not invest in endowing the National Heritage Memorial Fund, with the Reviewing Committee acting as its advisers, with a hefty, one-off sum, or series of payments, to avert any future crisis? It is time to sharpen the teeth of the Waverley system and make its bite worthy of its bark.