Monday, 5 August 2013

Who Owns Jane Austen?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a piece of literary heritage that is headed for the USA must be in want of an export licence.  American Singer Kelly Clarkson has bought a ring owned by Jane Austen and wants to take it home, but the British Government has imposed a temporary export bar.
Here's another way in which the law plays an important role in the definition and ownership of material heritage.  In the case of the ring, the Government's decision to bar export is based on the centrality of the object as a piece of British literary history.  But there are interesting questions flowing from this: who decides what objects to bar from export?  In England and Wales the task falls to the Export Licencing Unit (ELU) of the Arts Council.

The ELU's work brings into sharp relief tensions between competing interests in the ownership of heritage objects, which the ELU's guidance for exporters makes clear:

The purpose of the export control is to give an opportunity for the retention in this country of cultural goods considered to be of outstanding national importance. The system is designed to strike a balance, as fairly as possible, between the various interests concerned in any application for an export licence: the protection of the national heritage; the rights of the owner selling the goods; the exporter or overseas purchaser; and the position and reputation of the UK as an international art market ("UK Export Licensing: Procedures and Guidance for Exporters of Works of Art and Other Cultural Goods", 2013)

This is not the only object to be barred from export.  The government has also issued three other export bars, including one on an archive of letters belonging to Major James Wolfe, who became a national hero after his death at the Battle of Quebec in 1759 which saw Britain drive the French out of large parts of Canada. The 232 letters are valued at £900,000. A bar was also placed on the export of a collection of paintings, writings, charts, photographs and drawings documenting a 19th century British exploration of northern Australia valued at £4.2m, and a £5m single-seater Bentley racing car that once belonged to pioneering racing driver Sir Henry Birkin.

But does the system of export regulation inevitably bow down before 'market forces'?   Do the rights of legal owners inevitably trump the heritage claim of the nation-state?

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