The ones that got away

Every month a large amount of Finnish design and art objects leave Finland and end up in the hands of foreign buyers. It is a business that has been going on for a number of years but one that has intensified with the pace of the ever growing global society.

One man who has ventured into the export business is 30 year old Jukka Murto. I meet him at the Kupittaa train station in Turku and we ride together in his 90’s Jaguar to the warehouse where he stores his goods. It’s a drafty, slightly heated hall, filled with furniture from floor to ceiling. The contrast between the high-end furniture and the heavy industry interior strikes you immediately. Jukka Murto shows me a prototype chair by Ilmari Tapiovaara, the late designer.

– This one is going to Italy he says and runs his hand across the brown leather.

In a corner of the hall there are two cupboards from Alvar Aalto’s famous sanatorium in Paimio. They are on their way to Germany. Murto lifts up a broken floor lamp by Paavo Tynell and says:

– This one sold for 4000 euro at an auction a while ago. I get about the same if I send it abroad.

The container is being loaded with furniture

It’s the middle of a snowless February and three men are loading piece after piece into a soon to be filled container. The container is on its way to Japan and has first been stocked with Danish furniture in Copenhagen.

The legislation that prohibits the export of art and antique objects was cast in 1978. At that time it was the 19th century peasant furniture that was quickly leaving Finland, but the new laws slowed the activity down. In 1999 the legislation was updated to include objects over 50 years old. This however means that a large amount of the objects created during the Finnish design renaissance from the 1950’s onwards are not protected by the state’s export restrictions. Murto tells me that he previously needed to declare the content of the containers both in Finland and abroad but that it is no longer required.

Jukka Murto stacking chairs in the container

Few restrictions are issued

The National Board of Antiquities seldom issues bans. Noted cases during the last years have mostly concerned Finnish-Russian objects that recently have been bought back to Russia after the demand has gone up and the bans have naturally upset the antiques business. Curator Elina Anttila has been a front figure during the processes and she is well aware of the flow of antique and design objects abroad. The board is able to check what the auction houses are offering but it is restricted to act by the legislation.

– The legislation is done in such a way that we can’t check everything that leaves the country. But that which saddens me the most is that people don’t seem to realize or care to follow the laws that do exist, Anttila explains. We can’t inspect everything that leaves our borders. As an example, people wearing old jewelry when going abroad don’t realize that it is a crime, she says.

How many exporters have been caught in the last five years?

– I’ve never heard of anyone being caught. I suppose they have all been able to get the things across, Anttila says.

Elina Anttila looking at the export guidelines

For the exporter Jukka Murto it was a hobby that turned into a career. After running a shop with primarily Finnish customers it was tourists and mainly Japanese vistors that started finding the shop around the year 2000. Murto found a dealer in Japan who could handle the logistics in the other end and he started exporting.

– Initially we exported maybe five cubic meters at a time, now it’s a hundred. We bring containers over to Japan two to three times per year. All dealers sell things abroad but not to this extent, Murto explains.

Jukka Murto carrying chairs

Rising sales prices

The Design Museum in Helsinki is aware of the international popularity of Finnish design and the export but the museum director Marianne Aav is surprised by the scale of it.

– Our collections are quite complete but it is a shame that these things quite simply disappear. Luckily a large amount is sold to museums, Aav states. However, what often happens is that the objects end up in private collections and then they are no longer seen. The most absurd aspect is that the prices reach such heights that the museums no longer can compete with the foreign buyers, she says.

Aav thinks that it is problematic that one can relatively easy carry objects across the borders within the EU area and that it’s not possible to check whether an object continues to another country outside the area once it has left the Finnish borders. The Design Museum therefore cooperates with The National Board of Antiquities in the surveillance of the sale of industrial design objects.

Marianne Aav - Director at the Design Museum in Helsinki

A small production

The only actors in this line of business who are monitored and who thouroughly index the objects sold abroad are the large auction houses Hagelstam and Bukowskis.

– Previously we could have American customers who would fill a container and ship it over for resale but we don’t see that anymore because of the economic situation, says specialist Dan von Koskull at Bukowskis. The 1950-60’s in Finnish design is quickly disappearing abroad. Many would consider the production at the time to be quite large but it was relatively small, von Koskull explains.

von Koskull thinks that the sales abroad either happen directly or through Finnish buyers. But he still sees a bright spot.

– During the two latest auctions we’ve had, the Finnish collectors have woken up and bought extensively. The most grand pieces stayed in Finland but they had to pay a hard price for it, says von Koskull. The foreign buyers are however still our main clientel, he continues.

Bukowskis regularly sends their auction catalogues to The National Board of Antiquities but von Koskull can only recall one case concerning a veneer sculpture by Tapio Wirkkala that was rejected close to ten years ago.

Anything can be sold

In Finland there was an expressed desire for Finnish design to conquer the world and claim a place in homes all around the world. An honorable thought at the time, as well as now when Finnish design is yet again reliving a modern heyday. But what will coming generations have to say about the that which was once easily sold and which can never be gotten back. Are there any national borders anymore when it comes to culture and objects? I ask Jukka Murto if he thinks that the amount of objects has decreased. He nods.

– It has diminished, but it is partly due to there being less of it, partly due to the fact that people nowadays know what things are worth, says Murto. Everything can be sold. Right now there is a demand for wooden furniture and small things but handicraft such as rugs or splint baskets are on the rise. There is a demand now but you never know what will happen .Your imagination is your only limitation for what you can sell, Murto explains.

The container doors squeak as the men finally close them. The truck leaves for the Turku freeway, destination harbor. There it will be loaded onto a container ship and then opened for awaiting Japanese customers a month later.

An Ilmari Tapiovaara Mademoiselle chair awaiting transport

You can find Jukka Murto’s home page at www.talo.tv

The National Board of Antiquities’ export rules are found at http://www.nba.fi/en/cultural_goods

The National Board of Antiquities export rules

  • Objects of an age of 50 to a 100 years old are to be checked before brought outside Finland’s borders.
  • For industrial design objects more than 50 years old and over 100 year old furniture export permission is needed.
  • The National Board of Antiquities generally follows Finland’s legislation but in such cases where the cultural or economic value is considerably large the EU rules sometimes apply.
  • The factors that influence The National Board of Antiquities’ decisions are the objects’ monetary and cultural value as well as the amount initially produced.
  • The object needs to have a Finnish connection or be connected to the Finnish cultural history
  • Finnish culturally important objects that happen to temporarily be in Finland can also be prohibited from leaving Finland

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