How does a UK company dealing in antiques comply with the Export Control Act?

11 June 2024

In the vast and diverse world of art, the export and import of artwork and antiques is a business that requires not just a keen eye for beauty, but also a clear understanding of trade law. This article will explore the intricacies of the Export Control Act and how it affects UK businesses dealing in antiques and artworks.

Understanding the Export Control Act

Importing and exporting goods are not as simple as buying and selling. Each country has its own set of regulations and laws that govern the trade of goods across its borders. For UK companies dealing in antiques, the Export Control Act is one such law to reckon with.

The Export Control Act primarily deals with the control of goods being exported out of the UK. It is a comprehensive piece of legislation that sets out penalties for non-compliance, including fines and, in severe cases, imprisonment.

The Act is not limited to antiques or artworks; it covers a broad range of goods. However, for businesses dealing in antiques, certain sections of the Act are particularly pertinent. These include regulations on exporting items of cultural interest, regulations on exporting strategic goods, and regulations on trade sanctions.

Complying with the Export Control Act: Cultural Property

One of the key areas that businesses dealing in antiques and artworks will find relevant is the section on the export of cultural property. Cultural property regulations are put in place to preserve items of cultural significance within the country. These can include artworks, ancient artifacts, and antiques.

Under the Act, a UK business dealing in antiques must obtain an export licence before exporting items of cultural interest. This applies even if the item is being exported temporarily, such as for an exhibition.

To obtain an export licence, a company must apply to the Arts Council England’s Export Licensing Unit. This involves providing detailed information about the item, including its age, provenance, and significance. Each application is carefully reviewed by experts to determine if the item is indeed of cultural significance and if its loss would be detrimental to the UK's cultural heritage.

Navigating Trade Sanctions

In addition to cultural property regulations, a UK antiques business must also be aware of trade sanctions. Trade sanctions are restrictions placed on trade with certain countries in response to political or humanitarian issues. These sanctions can prohibit the export of certain goods, or even all goods, to the sanctioned country.

Companies that violate these sanctions can face severe penalties under the Export Control Act. Therefore, it is crucial for businesses to stay updated on current trade sanctions and ensure they are in compliance.

Dealing with Strategic Goods

While antiques may not seem like strategic goods at first glance, some can fall under this category. For instance, a historical artifact made of a rare metal or incorporating advanced technology might be considered strategic.

Strategic goods are regulated because they could potentially be used in ways that pose a risk to national security or contribute to the proliferation of weapons. Companies dealing in antiques that could be classified as strategic goods must apply for a special license to export these items.

A company must provide detailed information about the item, its intended use, and the end user. This information is reviewed by the Export Control Joint Unit, which decides whether to grant the license.

Engaging in Legal Business Practices

Beyond the specifics of the Export Control Act, it is also important for businesses to engage in legal business practices. This includes ensuring that all goods are legally acquired, that all taxes and duties are correctly paid, and that all business practices are transparent and ethical.

The world of art and antiques is unfortunately rife with illicit trade, smuggling, and fraud. Ensuring that a business operates legally not only helps to maintain the reputation of the company and the industry, it also ensures that cultural property is preserved and respected.

Compliance with the Export Control Act is a complex process that requires a deep understanding of the law and a keen attention to detail. However, it is a vital part of doing business in the antiques and artwork trade. By staying informed and diligent, UK companies can ensure they navigate this law effectively and maintain a successful, ethical business.

Controlling Illegally Exported Antiques and Artistic Works

Companies dealing in antiques and artistic works must also be aware of the regulations relating to illegally exported items. UK law does not permit the import or export of goods that have been illegally removed from their country of origin.

Under the Export Control Act, it is the responsibility of the importing company to ensure that the purchased items were not illegally exported from their originating country. This involves performing thorough due diligence on the provenance of the item, including its ownership history and the circumstances of its export.

This provision is of particular importance when dealing with items of cultural property, which are often subject to strict export controls in their countries of origin. The illegal trade in cultural property is a serious international issue, and the UK is committed to combating this through its export control regime.

Companies must also be aware of the risk of money laundering in the antiques trade. Money laundering involves disguising the illicit origins of funds through a complex series of transactions. The high value and often-opaque provenance of antiques can make them an attractive vehicle for money laundering.

Under UK law, companies are required to have robust anti-money laundering measures in place, including "know your customer" procedures and mechanisms for reporting suspicious transactions. This is applicable not just to antiques dealers, but also to auction houses and other businesses involved in the sale and purchase of artworks and antiques.

The Role of Auction Houses and Secretary of State

Auction houses play a significant role in the trade of antiques and artistic works, both in the UK and internationally. They are subject to the same regulations as other businesses under the Export Control Act and must also apply for an export licence when selling items of cultural interest to overseas buyers.

The granting of export licences in the UK is overseen by the Arts Council. However, it’s important to note that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has the final say on whether an export licence should be granted.

The Secretary of State can defer the granting of a license if they believe that the item is of national importance and should be given a chance to be purchased by a UK institution. This allows for a period during which funds can be raised to keep the item in the UK. It’s a crucial aspect of the law that aids the preservation of the country's cultural heritage.


Strict adherence to the Export Control Act is crucial for UK companies dealing in antiques and artistic works. It involves a comprehensive understanding of the regulations on exporting items of cultural interest, strategic goods, and current trade sanctions.

Notably, these businesses must ensure that the goods they handle have not been illegally exported from their country of origin. This includes conducting thorough checks on the provenance of each item and ensuring all transactions are transparent to prevent money laundering.

As we've noted, auction houses and the Secretary of State also play influential roles in the antiques trade. Therefore, companies dealing in antiques collectibles must familiarise themselves with all aspects of the English law governing this field, to ensure their practices are compliant, ethical, and ultimately successful.

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