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A Fine Art Trap for Expats in Italy

Assedio di Asola by Tintoretto

Legislation designed to keep track of the movements of antiques, painting and other works of art imported into and exported out of Italy could cause problems for anyone thinking of moving to Italy and importing art and antique items – even temporarily.

Those that want to export imported items at a later date could find themselves facing complex hurdles too.

Under Italy’s laws, any object over 50 years of age is classified as a cultural asset and may only leave Italy after having been registered with the Belle Arti department of Italy’s Heritage and Cultural Activity Ministry.  Even items which leave Italy temporally – in order for them to be exhibited in another country or to be sold at auction – require official approval.

I am told by someone who works in Italy’s antiques trade that dealing with approval process bureaucracy can be time consuming and costly too.

Assedio di Asola by Tintoretto
Assedio di Asola by Tintoretto

The registration requirement is not only applicable to art and antique dealers based in or dealing with Italy; it also applies to private individuals – which means expats.  Rules apply to all items over 50 years of age regardless of whether they originated in Italy or not, although items produced in Italy are much more likely to be labelled as being an essential part of Italy’s cultural heritage.

An example may help illustrate how problems could arise.

Art Import Problem Scenario

Imagine you are American and you decide to retire to Tuscany in Italy.

You buy a house and move many of your treasured possessions to your new home in Tuscany – perhaps you are an art investor or antiques collector.  Some of the objects you bring over to Italy are over 50 years of age.

For whatever reason, you do not notify the Belle Arti section of Italy’s culture ministry that you are importing items with an age of over 50 years.  Well, in that case, you have potentially and unwittingly “donated” your works of art to Italy’s cultural heritage.

What this means is that should you ever want to send an item or items back to your country of origin or out of Italy, Italy’s cultural hertitage officials may not give you permission to do so.  Or, if what you are trying to send out of Italy is a particularly significant part of Italy’s cultural heritage, you could be forced to sell it to Italy.

It is not entirely clear just what could be considered to constitute a significant piece of Italy’s heritage which means more or less anything.

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Imagine you have a painting by a German artist which was once owned by Mussolini.  The “Mussolini” connection may be enough to cause your unregistered art work to be prized from your fingers.

Before you start panicking, you should know that an antiques dealer I know of regularly ships items overseas and has not had too many problems.

Problematic encounters with byzantine Italian bureaucracy may occur as a result of:  death followed by the transfer of ownership of goods and chattels to inheritors based overseas, or, possibly, when a doting non-Italian parent based in Italy decides to help out a son or daughter financially by sending them an item over 50 years of age back home to sell.  Perhaps a child needs finance for a business they are setting up, or something like that.

Avoiding Problems

To avoid troublesome situations, which could be very problematic and time consuming to resolve, it is necessary to register items over 50 years of age at the time they are imported into Italy (moving items into a house in Italy counts as importing).  If this is done, then the objects concerned can be moved out of Italy in the future without too many problems.

Canaletto's Westminster Bridge 1746
Canaletto’s Westminster Bridge 1746 – a significant piece of Italy’s cultural heritage

If you have already imported objects of value with an age of 50 years or more and you want to send them somewhere out of Italy, then there is a typically Italian workaround which can smooth the export process for low value items.

A friendly antique dealer will know what I’m talking about.  I can’t mention the workaround here because it is illegal.

Italy’s rigid laws are really designed to catch items such as chunks of the Colosseum and other antiquities.  Your great grandpa’s old rocking chair is not likely to be an item which interests the Italian authorities.

For the sake of argument assume that an object of “value” is something worth more than €5000 – although age takes full precedence over value.

Moral of this cautionary tale:

Think carefully about the age, origins and the value of objects you are thinking of bringing to Italy and if you are planning to bring something which is of considerable value (antique jewelry, maybe) then ensure you do it via official channels.

SUE System

The curiously named, for English speakers, SUE system allows owners and dealers to create export documentation online.  You will need to know Italian to be able to use it.  Here, in Italian, is information about the SUE system.

More information, in Italian, on the movement of art and antiques over the age of 50 years can be found within Legislative Decree No. 42 of 22 January 2004 – in particular sections 55 and 56.

Final Thoughts

If you are planning to move to a house in Italy and you wish to bring objects of value with an age of over 50 years with you, mention the requirement for registration to your removals company – maybe even showing them this article.  If the company does not know what you are talking about  – change companies, fast.

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