"The value of the art market in Italy is a small portion of the value in the U.K., whereas the quantity of art in the two states is exactly opposite," said Massimo Sterpi, a Rome-based lawyer specializing in the art industry, who has co-edited a book called "The art collecting legal handbook."
Sterpi said he and his colleagues were lobbying the new Italian government—sworn in under Prime Minister Matteo Renzi this February—for changes to the laws governing the market.
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Under Italian law, any object designated a "national treasure" cannot leave the country permanently—it can only be exported temporarily, for a maximum of 18 months. Even if an object is not a national treasure, official approval is required for it to leave Italy, even temporarily, if it over 50 years of age.
"I'm totally surprised that Italy made so much harm to itself by passing these kind of laws and making everything so complex, rather than being the natural top art market in the world," Sterpi told CNBC over the phone.
"We did everything possible to make our markets very weak and we succeeded. There is so much scope for improvement, we hope some innovative government can come to understand one of the biggest industries we have, and help develop a world-class art market."
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James Palmer, a consultant at Mondex Corporation—which helps in the recovery of unclaimed property, including art—said a large amount of artworks in Italy are considered national art treasures, which therefore cannot be exported.
"This logically has a negative effect on the art market," he told CNBC over email. "The Netherlands, for example, also has a short list of artworks that cannot be transported, but the list in Italy is far longer."
What defines a 'treasure'?
Most countries take measures to protect national treasures, and European Union (EU) member states are entitled to do so for items of artistic, historic or archaeological value, due to an exemption clause in the treaty on the free movement of goods.
As EU countries are allowed to define for themselves what constitutes national treasures, and exactly how they should be treated, wide variations in practices exist. Italy's definition of a treasure is far more expansive than in countries like the U.K., France and the Netherlands, and its protection measures much stricter.
"In Italy, it is impossible to export artworks in this (national treasure) category. So yes, it is an effective means of preserving art works. However, by hampering the free market, it can certainly have a negative impact on private collectors," said Palmer.
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In the U.K. and France, for instance, officials only have the power to prevent an object's export for a limited period of time, after which it can go abroad. The length of the export ban is decided on a case-by-case basis in Britain, and is set at a maximum of 30 months in France, although it is subject to renewal.
In addition, while Italy requires approval for any object older than 50 years to leave the country, both France and the U.K. have minimum price thresholds below which permission is not needed. In the U.K., for example, a basic threshold of £34,300 ($57,655) for items going outside the EU applies.