With export reform, we will no longer have control. Interview with Anna Stanzani

Export reform of cultural goods: we heard one opposing voice, that of Anna Stanzani, director of the Bologna Export Office.

On Wednesday, we brought you the first interview on the reform of the export of cultural property. What follows is the second one, which gives voice to a personality opposed to the new legislation: she is Anna Stanzani, an art historian, among the most experienced and authoritative officials of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, former director of the Pinacoteca in Ferrara, the Museum of the Neoclassical Age in Faenza, and today director of the Export Office of the Bologna Superintendency. Interview edited by Federico Diamanti Giannini.

FDG. It is said that the export offices of the Superintendencies are the last bastions of the protection of our artistic heritage...let’s explain to the public what we mean by this assumption.
AS. The activity of the Export Offices is considered to be of preeminent national interest (Article 64 bis) in the Cultural Heritage Code, because these offices allow the controlled circulation of works, so they do not block the market and exchange but try to prevent important works of cultural heritage (or works stolen or illegally taken from contexts) from leaving Italy. Although economic interests, legitimate ones, are at stake with regard to the circulation of works, I believe it is necessary for the public interest to continue to guarantee this function of observing and controlling to be carried out basically according to the current parameters thanks to which the outgoing market emerges, thus allowing not only the opposition to exit, but also an increase in the national cultural heritage and an enrichment of public collections: this by virtue of the application of the institution of compulsory purchase upon exportation that in recent years, it seems to me, has intensified producing good results with the acquisition of important works. So the legislation does not only provide for denials of exit, but also purchases of works presented for export, and not only of ancient works, but also belonging to postwar Italian artistic research. The smooth running of this observatory and control is linked to the functionality of the offices. The recent reform of the Ministry was carried out without taking into account the number of art historians in service and retirements. And it is the art historians in particular who are in charge of the circulation of movable works. In the Superintendency where I work, which is the result of the merger, following the reform, of four Superintendencies in which immediately before the reform itself there were about fifteen art historians working, there are now only two art historians in service with duties of territorial protection and responsibility for the Export Office. Fortunately, there are four ALES art historians (whose functionality, however, is limited by their contract) whose tenure expires in July. We do not know what to do if their tenure is not renewed. As circulation has intensified exponentially, for exhibitions and for trade, monitoring is a difficult and concurrent activity, as well as a complex one. In this situation of shortage of personnel (including administrative personnel) composing technical commissions to evaluate works is already an arduous task because there is a shortage of art historians, although all those (now few) in the other peripheral ministerial offices in the region are required to be members.

As is well known, the export reform will introduce a threshold of 13,500 euros, below which the citizen who intends to circulate the work will simply have to present autocertification attesting to its value. However, the 13,500 euros is an estimate of the market value of the good, but the market value could also be different from the historical and cultural value, that is, the latter could be far higher than the material value of the object...
Undoubtedly. Technical commissions are also presented with drawings, paintings, sculptures, artifacts of various nature with low market value but which may be of great historical or documentary relevance and in the current system can be purchased to supplement or enrich the collections of a museum that lacks that small but important piece to better define its identity also in relation to the territory of which the museum in Italy is almost always an expression. Last year, for example, the state purchased for the National Museum of the Neoclassical Age in Faenza four small works by Felice Giani of excellent quality and preservation for a total value of 20,000 euros, extremely important in themselves because they documented a decorative complex that no longer exists and also important for the museum to which they were destined, which is housed in Giani’s own masterpiece, Palazzo Milzetti. In short, it is a chance to stitch up history and fill in the gaps. With the new legislation, the sub-threshold value that allows works of low commercial value not to be submitted to the relevant offices would be determined by the owner based on extremely random market criteria. It seems to me, therefore, that these legislative changes benefit private stakeholders, dealers, auction houses and not the public interest bearers.

Disegni di Felice Giani
Felice Giani, Stories of Ceres (1812; left, pen drawings preserved at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York; right, temperas on paper at the National Museum of the Neoclassical Age in Faenza). The small temperas on paper are preparatory for the decoration of the vault of the Teatro di Cerere in Imola executed by Felice Giani in 1812 and lost in the theater’s subsequent rebuilding. Watercolor ink drawings preserved at the Cooper Hewitt also remain from this decorative undertaking. They were purchased by wealthy U.S. sisters Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt in the early 1900s. The American museum holds more than 1,000 Giani drawings most of them from the collection of collector Giovanni Piancastelli.

In fact, the reform was created to facilitate the art market in Italy and, as we know, Article 68 of the ddl, the one that actually contains the reform, came out of a discussion involving the Apollo 2 group, formed by art operators, and the state. It must be said, however, that initially the operators’ demands were much higher, in line with those of countries such as France and the United Kingdom where the minimum thresholds are well above 100,000 euros. Has the state failed to find a good mediation between the demands of industry operators and public interest?
European legislation, meanwhile, states that each state is free to regulate itself within its own country, subject to certain EU principles. I believe that the new rules distort what was the Italian principle with respect to heritage, also reiterated by Article 68 bis of the Code, and that is, with reference to the regime of international circulation, the goods constituting the cultural heritage are not assimilated to goods: therefore, in a cultural good of important interest, the value of public interest is predominant over private interest and commercial interest. This is the spirit of our protection legislation, which seems to me to be changed with the new regulations, which, it must be emphasized, do not involve only the chapter of exportation but have a general effect on the entire protection of heritage as provided for in the Code, raising to seventy years from execution the age by which cultural property can be protected. Of course, other countries have other thresholds, but that does not mean that this is good for Italy, which is notoriously a country that exports goods to the outside world. Why do we have to conform to the importing countries? The seventy years from execution and the 13,500 euro threshold will allow the unchecked exit of many works of art. Already, it seems to me, we are seeing a withdrawal from submission to the export commission of works by, for example, Morandi: probably owners and dealers believe that soon the law will be passed and the painter’s works will be able to go out without being submitted to the commissions. It is legitimate to expect the exit of much artistic production developed from the late 1940s to the late 1960s because it will no longer fall within the time limits of execution, fifty years, now provided by the law. One must, on the other hand, challenge theopinion that export offices are cataphract offices, closed and hostile to circulation and the market, which in my opinion is not the enemy but an important force in the field to bring out works. As the same official data show, so many goods leave the national borders and we try to stop only that whose exit would lead to a serious impoverishment of the Italian heritage, and it is undoubtedly a delicate, difficult, slippery, and above all arduous task because of the little time available, in the current conditions of lack of personnel and means. There is no mathematical formula that establishes that the exit of a work represents a serious impoverishment. And we certainly have too little time and too few forces to be able to reconstruct in depth the context of all the works presented to us. As is well known, the historical-critical judgment has margins of subjectivity, which is why it must be issued by a committee and subjected to control by the Ministry. For a good work, it is necessary to put in place the study of the work, identity, origin, and history also through a national exchange of opinions among art historians. In fact, commissions find themselves judging works from all over Italy, from disparate authors and artistic fields that require special and in-depth expertise. In any case, there are many, many more certificates of free circulation than denials. With this new proposed legislation, we will no longer have control, because goods (valued at less than 13,500 euros or less than seventy years old) will be able to leave without the Export Office being able to view them, and this may also have a negative implication with regard to theft: outgoing works will no longer be controlled thanks to searches by Carabinieri of the Protection Unit in the Data Bank of illicitly stolen cultural goods, provided for in Article 85 of the Cultural Heritage Code and which contains descriptive and photographic information about the cultural goods to be searched.

Speaking of exit, and also of time thresholds: those opposed to the reform fear that there could be an uncontrolled exit of works produced between 1947 and 1967, but those in favor say that many of the artists whose exit is feared, such as Fontana, Morandi and others, made works that were designed specifically for the market and therefore should circulate freely...
Of course, all artists made and make for sale, for the dissemination of their art. But it does not seem to me that this is an objective criterion for evaluating the release of an asset over fifty years old and by a non-living author. Two criteria that allow for a fair historical perspective.

The reform was created to help the Italian art market. In Italia Nostra’s petition, however, we read that in reality the reform would benefit the international market at the expense of the Italian market. What does this mean in your opinion?
It means that it allows the exit, I repeat, without control, of a considerable amount of works to foreign importing markets, to Europe or even to other markets, and given the importance of works produced in Italy I think it is mainly facilitated the international market rather than the domestic one.

We have mentioned that the staffing levels of the Superintendencies, and therefore also of the export offices, are stretched thin, and the current situation, with recruitment almost at a standstill and with the Ministry’s latest competition not even sufficient to cover turnover, certainly does not leave us with good expectations. So could a solution have been found in this regard, so as to ensure that the Superintendencies work optimally, with full and efficient staffing levels, without therefore changing the rules? Or could other measures have been introduced to reconcile the needs of the market with those of protection, avoiding a reform such as the current one?
Undoubtedly increasing staffing is essential to ensure a job well done both scientifically and administratively, because it is clear that when you have a public service that in itself, in its outlines and principles, could work, but you don’t have the human resources, you end up not making it work and you create dissatisfaction. From disservice comes controversy, and through that controversy it is possible to change any principle, because everything then gets put into other hands that complain about loss of time (months of time has been mentioned for items of little importance) and loss of earnings because of the time that is being extended for certifications. We would very much like, too, not to deal with junk. As a matter of fact, the service has been depowered especially with unreplaced retirements and with the entry, in no way regulated, of art historians at the Museum Poles, for museum directorates. The protection of the mobile heritage spread over the territory is reduced to the minimum because there is not enough staff in the Superintendencies to follow restoration, notification, movement, circulation. And heritage cataloguing is no longer talked about. Much of the work is a labored attempt to control the circulation of works. Within the latter, a very substantial chapter is the movement for exhibitions: by now masterpieces of all kinds, which should be quiet in their locations, bounce from one end of the world to the other, in defiance of the recommendations that claim that frequent and close trips over time should be avoided and that the basis of loans should be a serious scientific exhibition project. The Superintendencies, and in them the Export Offices, struggle to keep up with the temporary circulation for exhibitions sometimes of entire blocks of works and their movement to multiple locations with quite complex procedures. So, an increase in the staffing of the Superintendencies, particularly in the ranks of art historians, would be essential to give effectiveness and efficiency, decrease waiting times and, above all, to ensure good scientific and technical control work. Then undoubtedly some time limits for certain categories of assets should also be reviewed. If staffing was increased and parameters were revised for certain categories of goods such as library goods, the service would be better and faster. I mention book assets that are subject to control if they are more than 50 years old, in fact the reform of the Ministry has also entrusted the Export Offices with the control of these assets, which were previously the responsibility of the regional Archival and Bibliographic Superintendencies, and it is a heavy workload. I believe that something can be changed in the regulations, including facilitating lacquisto alla esportazione, introducing the possibility that not only the state but also other public bodies or foundations can purchase and perhaps including the possibility of subscriptions as is done in other countries. We should get around a table, not only antiquarians and dealers but also art historian officials. Instead, it seems to me that the administration’s technicians, unfortunately, are not being asked.

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