Jack Brabham’s BT-19 in the National Sports Museum in Melbourne. Photo by Bahnfrend.
After a report outlined serious deficiencies in the Australian government’s ability to keep culturally significant automobiles and other cultural items in the country, the government will soon consider whether to bolster that law and possibly seize any vehicle illegally exported since 1987.
Originally passed in 1986, the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act intended not only to comply with UNESCO’s 1970 convention prohibiting the trafficking of illicit cultural property but also to ensure that items of cultural heritage within Australia – including significant automobiles – aren’t exported out of the country.
However, according to a review of the Act that Australian lawyer Shane Simpson submitted in September 2015, the existing law contains a number of deficiencies, among them “inconsistency or failure to protect objects of significance through sporadic or incoherent enforcement.” Indeed, as some observers of the Australian collector car market have noted, it’s not difficult for exporters to ship cars out of Australia dismantled and declared as parts, to send cars to overseas events and then sell them at auction rather than send them back home, or to ignore the law altogether.
“What was appropriate a quarter of a century ago, is no longer,” Simpson wrote in an introduction to the report. “Advances in technology, systems and markets mean that the trade in cultural property is truly global. The use of the internet to market and sell cultural property, together with modern delivery mechanisms, mean that international purchases are now made in minutes and delivery rates are measured in hours. The ability of law enforcement to truly control the borders is more limited than it has ever been.”
In addition, as Simpson pointed out, the lack of transparency, inconsistencies in evaluating objects of cultural significance, and poorly defined terminology of the existing law has led to confusion among both officials and car owners whether a vehicle qualifies as culturally significant in Australia.
To that end, Simpson proposed more comprehensive definitions of Australian movable cultural heritage – including wording that would encompass any vehicle designed by an Australian, built in Australia, altered in Australia, or strongly associated with an Australian – as well as a classification structure that would put culturally significant vehicles in one of three classes: Australian Heritage Material (requires a permit for temporary or permanent export), Australian Protected Material (requires a permit for temporary export; may not be permanently exported), and Declared Australian Protected Material (may not be exported permanently; may be exported temporarily only under strict conditions).
Culturally significant automobiles currently fall under Class B, which means they may be exported from Australia – temporarily or permanently – with a permit.
First Australian-built Holden, presumably a prime candidate for Declared Australian Protected Material. Photo courtesy Theodore Bruce.
While no automobiles have, to date, been denied export permits, according to the Australian Prohibited Exports Register (though multiple road locomotives, traction engines, and steam wagons have), both existing Australian law and Simpson’s proposal would qualify automobiles as culturally significant under “applied science and technology material,” subject to a 30-year cutoff. Automotive archives – including those of Ford of Australia and Holden – may also be considered culturally significant under “documentary heritage material.”
Rather than leave assessment of cultural significance to the current 10-person National Cultural Heritage Committee, Simpson believes a formal department under the Australian government’s Minister for Arts – aided by non-governmental field experts – would be able to adequately determine and classify objects of cultural significance. While Simpson doesn’t call for a register of culturally significant objects and vehicles – similar to the U.S.’s National Historic Vehicle Register – he points out that the classification regime will result in a de facto register.
And while the current law provides for the possibility of governmental seizure of any illegally exported Australian vehicle, Simpson believes that automatic forfeiture of illegally exported vehicles is necessary to enforce the law.
This inhibits its sale and market value in the overseas market, for no reputable auction house wants to sell items to which the vendor cannot establish good title… Indeed, the best way of promoting the regime would be a couple of high profile actions for the seizure and return of forfeit cultural material. It would give loud warning to the foreign auction houses and collectors as well as the local sellers who are prepared to undertake illegal export for personal profit.
Any of the 131 signatory countries to the 1970 UNESCO Convention would thus be compelled to comply with Australian officials’ requests to seize an illegally exported vehicle and return it to the country. Depending on the vehicle’s cultural significance classification, even attempting to illegally export it could result in forfeiture under Simpson’s proposal. In addition, he suggested raising penalties for illegal export from the current AUS$9,000 to AUS$54,000. A grandfather clause would apply to any vehicles exported prior to 1987, when the current law went into effect.
Owners of vehicles that don’t qualify as culturally significant are also expected to benefit from Simpson’s proposals with clearer definitions and the streamlining of the export permit process.
Based on Simpson’s review, the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Amendment Bill is slated to be introduced in the Australian parliament during its winter sittings, which will continue through next week.