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Authorities aim to crack down on illegal exports of Finnish design rarities

The National Board of Antiquities is worried by an upsurge in exports of rare items from the heyday of Finnish Design in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Yksityiskohta Timo Sarpanevan Kajakki-lasiveistoksesta.
Detail of a glass sculpture entitled Kajakki by Timo Sarpaneva Image: Yle

By law, industrial art objects that were produced on a small scale and are more than 50 years old require a special permit to be exported. However, many Finns are unaware of this – and many foreign collectors don’t care.

Indeed, officials at the Board of Antiquities and the Customs Board believe that most exports of objets d’arts do not come to the attention of authorities. If officials do find out about an attempt to move a restricted item out of the country, they can impose a temporary export ban on it. This has been done in about a dozen cases in the past year or so. Some involved the sale of unique furnishings and fixtures designed by architect Alvar Aalto for his landmark buildings such as Finlandia Hall and the Paimio Sanatorium. 

“We have far less material culture that can be exported than, say, Italy. Each item that is taken abroad without a permit or illegally impoverishes our national cultural heritage,” says Raila Kataja of the National Museum.

International collectors keen on Finnish glass

There is now hot demand for classic Finnish design such as glasswork by Timo Sarpaneva and Tapio Wirkkala, as well as lights and furnishings by Alvar and Aino Aalto.

"I get requests from my customers to find a particular series, a particular item. Tapio Wirkkala and Timo Sarpaneva, those are the names that I think are popular," says Kaori Shimado, a design dealer from Tokyo who is currently visiting Finland.

Yet customs and police often lack the resources or expertise to track down every possible shipment including such items. In some cases, they have intervened after being tipped off by transport companies, collectors or antique dealers.

The guidelines for evaluating modern cultural items must be revised, says Tommi Lindh, who recently took over as director of the Alvar Aalto Museum. As international demand grows for products that are collecting dust in many Finnish homes, there should clear rules as to which ones are rare and which are not – especially as glass and ceramics tend to break over the years, or even be thrown away when estates are cleared out.

Alvar Aallon suunnittelema ja Iittalan lasitehtaan valmistama lasinen kukkamaljakko.
Aalto vase Image: Arja Lento/YLE

”We’ll have to think about export bans on increasingly well-known items,” says Lindh. “For instance you can buy a new Aalto vase for less than 100 euros – but its earliest version, the Savoy vase, was hand-blown. Some of them are really unique pieces. They were often given as gifts and so could be found in almost any home.”

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