In a living room, a portrait hangs over the fireplace. As he traced the sitter’s features, the artist’s fingers must have hardly risen off the paper.

It’s strange to be looking at a work by such a well-known artist above family photographs and mementos.

I ask if I may snap a picture to help me remember it better, but the guy in the armchair behind me gently declines, saying he’d prefer I didn’t. He wasn’t a museum employee, but rather a buddy of the proprietor.

They were unavailable to meet me, but permitted me to tour their house, which is nestled away on a quiet suburban street, on the condition that I not share any identifying information about the work or its location.

The picture, along with hundreds of other things deemed to be of exceptional artistic value by HMRC, is eligible for the conditional exemption tax incentive (Ceti). When pieces move to a new owner – either as a consequence of a death or as a gift – the new owner is immune from paying inheritance or capital gains tax as long as they look after them, maintain them in the UK, and make them accessible for public viewing.

I wanted to learn more about how the plan works since art and taxes are unlikely bedfellows. Accessing the art, which includes pieces by Rembrandt, Rossetti, Goya, Renoir, and Degas, among others, turns out to be simpler in principle than in reality. Items may be searched for by category, location, artist, and work name in a little-publicized online database.

From the intricate (“A magnificent French circular ivory double mirror-case, each cover carved in relief with the Siege of the City of Love”) to the short (“Oil painting – Man’s head”), there’s something for everyone.

Contact information for scheduling viewings is often out of current or erroneous. Only six of the twenty-five requests I made over an eight-month period resulted in viewings.

According to a report from 2013, just five appointments were scheduled out of 30 queries. Emails went unanswered, contacts had to be tracked down, and legal intermediates had to be tracked down.

A befuddled financial manager had no clue what the program was or why she was identified as a contact for a Henry Moore artwork in one case.

When the requests finally reached the owners, many were naturally wary about granting access to their work for security reasons. To ease fears, HMRC recommends requiring guests to provide identity and/or scheduling viewings in public locations rather than private houses, leaving it up to the owners to arrange insurance and transportation.

One attorney requested a “reasonable charge” (as defined by the plan) of £100 to organize a Rembrandt viewing, which may not be excessive considering the logistics required, but is arguably exorbitant for the general public. Such art is sometimes presented in British museums or galleries, although curators are often hesitant to replace permanent pieces with those on short-term loans from private collections.

When an appointment could be made, talking with the collectors was just as delightful as looking at the paintings. I arranged for a viewing of a relief by Barbara Hepworth’s husband, Ben Nicholson, a modernist artist. The painter and the owner had developed a long-distance connection via writing, and when he died, he gave her the wall-mounted sculpture with his nickname written in pencil on the back of the frame.

No exhibition, no matter how well-curated, can compare to being so physically near to the work and through degrees of relationship to the artist.

While there are some happy moments, the overwhelming difficulties in getting access to the art begs the issue of whether the tax break is worth the lost money – an estimated £1 billion over the previous several decades. However, the inefficiency might be due to the fact that the system was never intended for the general population.

It was developed in 1896 by the Tory government of the time in response to requests from art collectors worried about the integrity of their collections. The death duty, a levy on the value of an estate, was implemented by the previous Liberal administration, prompting desperate landowners to give up their art in order to reduce inheritance payments.

To retain art in the country, the Conservatives exempted any artifacts that may one day be included to a national collection. The public was not able to examine things until the 1970s, and it was only in 1998 that public access became a legal necessity.

The acceptance in lieu scheme, which allows inheritance tax bills to be paid for by transferring art (among other things) to a public institution or charity, paved the way from private to full public ownership of art in the 1940s, allowing items to be added to the permanent collections of Britain’s galleries.

Over time, both schemes would help to preserve the collections of Britain’s many historic buildings (including many that are open to the public as part of the National Trust), but today’s overlap is either administrative (the same panel of experts decides which items are eligible for both schemes) or informal (a gallery that takes a piece on short-term loan may suggest that they’d like to own it permanently and put it forward for the accep)

One of the most delightful aspects of British culture is the democratization of art: anybody, wealthy or poor, may stroll into any public gallery and stare at a masterpiece. Any incentive that allows the whole country to view pieces of art that would otherwise be reserved for a select few should be lauded, but it seems that the Ceti isn’t delivering on its promise.

If collectors are wary of expanding access to their collections, the question of whether we should subsidize their ownership must be considered.

The Treasury and the government should better help people who wish to share their work with the public by updating and publicizing the program, organizing exhibits, and, in the long run, encouraging items to be purchased for permanent display in galleries around the nation. Until then, it’s unclear if the plan is protecting our cultural legacy or the tax bills of those who are lucky enough to possess such valuable works.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.