As an art owner, you might have thought it was within your right to freely enjoy, loan or perhaps even sell your artwork. The Italian government wants you to think again.

Under existing legislation, any artwork in Italy created over 50 years ago by an artist who has died requires a licence for temporary or permanent export regardless of the work’s market price. The rules empower local Italian art authorities to block the sale and export of artworks deemed to be of cultural interest. 

This was the tangle of red tape which ensnared private owner Elena Quarestani when she attempted to sell a portrait by Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí. Not only did the Italian government block the sale by Christie’s auction house but it also thwarted an attempted acquisition of the painting by the Dalí Foundation for £500,000. The government’s justification was that the portrait, entitled ‘Figura en una taula (Figure at a Table)’, is “very beautiful”. It is also considered rare for a Dalí to be held by an Italian collection and the portrait is said to have an inspired an Italian art movement called Valori Plastici.

Quarestani is vexed. “I think I should have the right to sell this painting wherever I want,” she said. She finds the government’s reasoning “crazy” and is fighting to take her case all the way to the European Court of Justice to determine if Italy’s export laws constitute a barrier to the free movement of goods.

She is not alone in her fight. A group comprised of gallerists, antiques dealers and auction houses have been lobbying the Italian government to reform the country’s protectionist export laws. These were first introduced in 1939 to safeguard Italy’s ancient and Renaissance masterpieces and prevent them from leaving the country. The group argues that the laws have barred the country from joining the international art market and driven both art buyers and vendors away from Italy. This was reflected in a 2014 report by The European Fine Art Foundation, which revealed that Italy’s share accounted for just 1% of the global art market. A recent attempt to enact similar cultural protection legislation in Germany prompted a backlash from art professionals.

The Italian lobby group propose that the 50 year term for heritage protection should be extended to 100 years and the application of a monetary threshold below which works would not require an export licence. This would free up artworks below a certain financial value for sale and export abroad and bring Italy into line with the rest of the EU.

Those opposed to reform include the director of the local culture ministry in Milan, Emanuela Daffra, who is concerned it may result in a mass exodus of treasured Italian artworks:

“It would affect permanently the possibility of securing these works for public use in Italy.”

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government has largely endorsed the lobbying group’s proposals but wants to set the term at 70 years. The lobbying group hopes the reforms will be implemented by the end of 2016.