A recent report involving a Dalí painting, Figura en una taula (pictured below), has once again brought the issue of cultural export controls into focus. The Dalí painting, owned by an Italian national named Elena Quarestani, has been blocked by the Italian authorities from leaving the country. This is because it has been subject to a ‘declaration of cultural interest’, which can occur for any work that is currently in the country, over 50 years old and made by an artist now deceased.
But how could a work by Salvador Dalí, a Spaniard who spent part of his life in France, qualify as being ‘of cultural interest’ in Italy? What did Dalí have to do with Italian culture? It seems an obvious question to ask, but the answer used by the government to block the export is a stretch. The reason is that the painting had been influenced by the Valori Plastici art movement in Italy. And so, if this reasoning is taken to its logical extreme, a work currently in Italy and over 50 years old that shows the influence of any Italian artistic movement or Italian artist, could be subject to restrictions on export, as well as on the sale of the work within Italy. But any artist who hasn’t been so influenced by the Italians in one way or another was probably living under a shell.
There is movement afoot to amend the Italian export laws so that they would only apply to objects over 70 years of age. But this wouldn’t affect the treatment of Figura en una taula, which was painted in 1925. Nor would it prevent the sort of logical gymnastics that could catch a work like this in the net of the export authorities. Quarestani and her lawyer Giuseppe Calabi are looking to challenge the Italian laws before the Court of Justice of the European Union. Perhaps then some answers will be found. But for now, in countries like Italy with strong cultural export restrictions, the pendulum is definitely on the side of the powers of retention.