28 April 2020

Art in the time of Coronavirus: HMRC relaxes the public access requirements for Conditional Exemption

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has temporarily relaxed the public access requirement for Conditional Exemption, and urged the owners of heritage property to follow the restrictions now imposed by the UK government on business operation and public movement due to the Coronavirus outbreak.

Pre-eminent land and buildings across the UK, many of which would now be open to the public, are closed due to Coronavirus. With the summer months fast approaching, not only is there growing concern amongst owners of heritage property about losing vital income streams, but also anxiety from some owners who have undertakings with HMRC as part of Conditional Exemption arrangements.

Conditional Exemption

Conditional Exemption is a deferral of tax (not a complete exemption) that is available on land; buildings; any collection or individual picture, book, manuscript, work of art or scientific object; or anything else the Secretary of State considers pre-eminent for its national, scientific, historic, or artistic interest.

To claim the relief, the owner must undertake to HMRC that they will (a) keep the object in the UK; (b) ensure that it is adequately preserved; and (c) allow “reasonable public access”.

The definition of reasonable public access must be agreed with HMRC and depends on the type of object, making due allowance for preservation needs. A general guidance to what constitutes reasonable public access can be found in our previous article.

Updated guidance from HMRC

With the current threat to public health, and the restrictions imposed on business operations, HMRC has issued the following updated guidance for the owners of a national heritage property:

Closing or delaying the opening of your property

You should follow Public Health England’s social distancing guidance if you are the owner of a national heritage property.

We will not consider that you have broken your agreement with us if you are an owner of a national heritage property who closes it, or delays its opening to later in 2020. This will apply even if it means you will miss some of the period covered by your agreement, or you do not open at all in 2020.

If the situation improves we will expect your property to be open later in the year to make up for any lost days, if possible. We would not expect additional open days next year to make up for those missed in 2020.

For objects

Objects on loan to other organisations that close due to government advice

If a conditionally exempted object is on loan to a museum, gallery or other venue which closes we will not treat the withdrawal of public access to the object as if you have broken your agreement with us. This will apply even if it means the object is not on show at all in 2020.

Objects that can only be seen by appointment

If an object can only be seen by appointment then we will not expect you to agree to an appointment until the government’s advice changes, and you will not have broken your agreement with us.”

This is a helpful response from HMRC to the current situation. In the ordinary course of events, a breach of the undertaking to allow reasonable public access would lead to a loss of the exemption.

A word of caution though: if the restrictions are lifted in the current year, HMRC will expect owners to make up the lost days in 2020 if possible, but they will not expect lost days from this year to be made up in 2021.

If you have any questions in relation to the points raised in this article, or in relation to a piece of art or other cultural property, please get in touch with a member of our Art and heritage property group.


The current global crisis is evolving rapidly, and the rules and guidance for individuals, companies and other entities to manage its implications are similarly fast moving. Notes such as this may be out of date almost as soon as they are published. If you have any questions prompted by this article or on any other matter relevant to you, please get in touch with your usual contact at Forsters.

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