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Brexit: Wait and See

Published on , by Hugues Cayrade

After almost half a century of living "together", the United Kingdom stopped being part of the European Union on 1 February. London and Brussels have given themselves until the end of 2020 to redefine their relations...

Photo James Claffey Brexit: Wait and See
Photo James Claffey

The 32nd edition of the London Art Fair ended on 26 January on a positive note. Some 20,000 modern and contemporary art lovers visited the Business Design Centre in Islington, which brought together nearly 130 galleries, a quarter of them from abroad. The district of Islington, where over 75% voted against Brexit, is highly representative of European cultural diversity, and the exit from Europe is causing considerable anxiety. Fears are mainly focused on the new residence and working conditions applying to expatriates. British galleries and cultural institutions employing European citizens - a third of them, according to Arts Council England – are afraid their activities will be disrupted. From 1 January 2021, immigration conditions look set to be the same for European citizens as for nationals of other third countries.

But Brexit is also troubling the art world in statutory and commercial terms. Even before the agreement was signed, the prospect of the UK's departure from Europe seems to have affected auctions, with the London market falling by almost 24% in the first half of 2019. In 2018, the UK accounted for 66% of the art market in Europe, compared with France's 19%, and was the world's third largest market. The remaining uncertainties surrounding customs and death duties have already prompted cautious reactions. Several gallery owners and art dealers have transferred some of their works to other European capitals, notably Paris, which is on the upswing. In the wake of the FIAC, which had never attracted so many foreign galleries before (72% of exhibitors), New York gallery owner David Zwirner inaugurated a Parisian branch in October. Austria's Thaddaeus Ropac believes that Brexit will benefit the market in Paris, where he has been based since 1990. His London gallery, which opened in 2017, was turned down by three collectors who might have loaned him works for the Rosenquist exhibition. Earlier in the year, the London-based Tornabuoni curtailed the Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana exhibition by two weeks to send works back to Italy as soon as possible, fearing they would be subject to new taxes. Other major international galleries based in the British capital are looking for premises in Paris. "The British legal system, which stipulates a tax on the import of artworks from non-European countries equal to 5% of a work's value, has enabled London to become a preferential channel for European collectors wishing to acquire or exchange works of art between EU member states, because of an exemption from import and export taxes," says auctioneer Marc-Arthur Kohn. "This change in the situation could benefit France."

The Future in the East
These uncertainties are compounded by the loss of income that looks set to affect the UK art sector. According to Arts Council England, between 2007 and 2016, nearly 1,400 artistic projects benefited from £345 million (just over €400 million) in aid from the EU. What will become of this welcome funding after the exit from the Union? However, some UK art market players see the freedom regained as an opportunity. Their development, which has focused on Asia and the Middle East for nearly twenty years, should now be easier. In Mayfair, London gallery owner Timothy Taylor said much the same thing when he wrote in the British press: "Almost all our customers, even if they are British, have an international outlook". The cultural influence of "perfidious Albion", from Turner to Hirst, is probably here to stay.

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