American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson has recently been barred from exporting a £126,000 ring previously owned by author Jane Austen. Ms Clarkson bought the ring at auction after winning a bidding contest against other Austen enthusiasts. However, she was prevented from taking the ring back to the United States after the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (the Reviewing Committee) decided it was an object of cultural interest. They recommended that the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey, put a temporary export bar on it to see whether a UK buyer could be found. A campaign was then launched by Jane Austen's House Museum, which had been outbid by Ms Clarkson in the original auction. The campaign resulted in a number of donations, including an anonymous donation of £100,000, which together allowed the museum to make a successful bid for the ring which will be on display at the museum in Hampshire from next year.

The Law

There are a number of points of law which apply to the export of such objects of cultural interest. The original legislation came about because of the Second World War in 1939 when the government needed to restrict exports of weapons and supplies to the enemy. Today, the legislation used to prevent illicit arms trading (the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979) is also used to enforce export restrictions on cultural objects.

Current export controls over cultural objects emanate from both UK and EU legislation. In the UK the ultimate authority over whether to grant an export licence lies with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (the Culture Minister), presently Maria Miller, under an order of the Export Control Act 2002. The Culture Minister is advised by the Reviewing Committee, which is made up of eight permanent members who have expertise in one or more fields, as to whether an object meets the criteria as being an object of cultural interest. The Reviewing Committee was established in 1952 by a recommendation of the 'Waverley Committee' which had been appointed to advise on export policies and to recommend practical steps to be taken to enforce these.

If a cultural object is over 50 years old, has been in Britain for over 50 years and is worth over a certain monetary value (depending on the specific object), then the owner must apply to the Arts Council for an export licence to be able to remove it from the country. An Expert Adviser in a national museum or gallery will review the export licence application and if they object to the item leaving the country they will refer the application to the Reviewing Committee.

The Reviewing Committee, together usually with three object specific experts, will assess the object against three criteria known as the 'Waverley Criteria':

  1. Historical: Is the item so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?
  2. Aesthetics: Is the item of outstanding aesthetic importance?
  3. Scholarship: Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

If it is deemed that the object meets any of these criteria (which all carry equal weight), then the Reviewing Committee will recommend that an export licence be deferred. This is to allow a buyer to come forward so that the object can remain in Britain.

Sotheby's (the auction house which sold the ring) include a disclaimer on the bottom of their listed items where they consider that export restrictions may apply to them. However, in this case the auctioneers valued the ring at £20,000- £30,000: well under the £43,484 threshold for a ring to require an export licence. It was the high sale price reached at auction which pushed the ring high over the threshold.

Licence Application and Expert Opinion

It was the Expert Adviser's opinion in the case of Jane Austen's ring, which led to the case being referred to the Reviewing Committee. The expert considered that, given the rarity of Jane Austen jewellery and the likelihood that the ring would be illustrated in future biographies, it met the third of the Waverley Criteria.

Kelly Clarkson's Submission to the Reviewing Committee

Kelly Clarkson disagreed with the Expert Adviser's opinion and argued to the contrary, that it did not meet any of the Waverley Criteria. In her submission to the Reviewing Committee she argued that, whilst there was no question that Jane Austen was a cultural figure of enormous significance, her significance was as a writer and that it does not derive from her jewellery. She further argued that, while the ring was 'an attractive but simply designed piece' of jewellery it clearly did not meet the threshold required to be of outstanding aesthetic importance. Finally, she dismissed the ring's falling within the third criterion by arguing that there was little scope for further research on the piece that would be of significance to the study and appreciation of either the works or the life of Jane Austen.

Reviewing Committee Decision

The Reviewing Committee voted on the Waverley status of the ring and recommended unanimously that it met the first criterion; that the ring was so closely connected to our national history that losing it would be a misfortune.

The Reviewing Committee's decision raises questions about the procedure for buying and owning interesting cultural pieces, let alone exporting them. Ms Clarkson agreed to the sale of the ring when the successful bid was made. Indeed she was in a difficult position. If she did not agree to sell the ring then it is unlikely an export licence would have been granted. As she did agree to the sale of the ring, obviously she will now no longer possess it. However, if no offer had been made which equalled Ms Clarkson's, it is likely that an export licence would ultimately have been granted. She will now have to content herself with the replica ring commissioned for her by her fiancé.