On January 1, 1973 the Union Jack was raised at the EEC headquarters in Brussels to mark Britain’s entry into the Common Market. Forty-three years later – an era in which the art and antiques business has evolved beyond all recognition – debate continues as to the merits of a politico-economic union now representing 28 member states and an estimated 508 million people. On June 23 Britain will put it to the vote.
But what would Brexit – that inelegant shorthand for Britain leaving the European Union – mean for dealers, auctioneers and collectors in the UK?
Of the £4735m worth of art and antiques exported from the UK in 2014, just £92m went to other parts of the EU. Imports from the EU were more substantial at £357m.
One side of the fence has it that Britain’s ‘via media’ within the EU has ultimately enhanced its status as an entrepôt for art and antiques. Cross-border red tape has been reduced, British auctioneers have muscled in on the once fiercely-guarded Paris market while the London art trade has prospered with the input of creative and knowledgeable French, German, Spanish and Italian dealers.
Equally helpful for British Art and Antiques Trade Plc in the so-called Single Market are the wildly differing tariffs levied on imported works of art. Import VAT on art charged at 5% in the UK (the lowest) rises to 10% in Spain and a massive 22% in Italy.
So why risk changing the status quo?
The UK is the EU’s dominant art market player with sales of $13.5 billion translating to a 21% share of the global market. France accounts for 6% of global sales, Germany and Switzerland (outside of the EU) 2% and Spain and Italy 1%.
The TEFAF Report 2016, published earlier this month on the eve of the Maastricht fair, found that the UK (the second largest art market worldwide in 2015 with sales of $13.5 billion) accounted for 64% of all sales in the EU, with France a distant second with a 19% share and Germany in third with 5%. The remaining 12% of the market is divided between 25 other nations.
Such apparently positive statistics highlight precisely why at least some senior members of the dealing community will be voting to Brexit. The argument goes that the art and antiques market means far more to the UK economy than it does in other part of Europe where it is frankly considered of little or no importance.
Anthony Browne, chairman of the British Art Market Federation, argues that three regulatory areas emanating from the EU since 1993 have damaged Britain’s global competitiveness. These are the burden of EU export licensing, the introduction of VAT on art imports and the implementation in 2006 of the controversial Artist’s Resale Right.
The latter, entitling artists to a royalty each time one of their works is resold through an auction house or dealer, put London at an immediate disadvantage to its key international competitors and promoted fears that the art market would migrate from London to New York and Hong Kong.
Ten years on and its precise impact is still being debated as, no doubt, UK stakeholders will debate the place of the antiques trade ‘in or out’ of Europe as June 23 looms.
One thing is clear. On a topic where hearts and minds can be as important as facts and figures, this is not an issue where the antiques trade will be singing with one voice.