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Tuesday, 7 December, 1999, 14:16 GMT
Grim picture for arts market
auction Hammered: UK art market will suffer say auctioneers

The traditional image of the struggling artist is of someone holed up in a garret flat, with just their paints and palette for company.

So a European Union proposal to give artists a percentage of the price every time a piece of their work is sold, sounds like a jolly good idea.

It will make an equality of misery
Anthony Browne
The French thought so, and that's why they introduced "droit de suite" after the First World War, to help poor artists in Paris.

It levied a 5% tax on all re-sales of their work, paid by the seller out of his receipts. The revenues were handed to the artists or their families.

Droit de suite now applies in all EU countries apart from the UK, Ireland, Austria, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

But now the EU wants to make the system common to all European countries.

Auction houses in London - the centre of the European art trade - are in uproar, claiming it would send the 2.2bn market abroad, to the US and Switzerland, to avoid the levy.

The UK government is fighting the move, brandishing a report which predicts it will cost 8,500 jobs in the country's art market.

euro 0-50,000 - 4%
euro 50-200,000 - 3%
euro 200,000-350,000 - 0 .5%
euro 500,000 and upwards - 0.25%
Anthony Browne, chairman of the British Art Market Federation, said: "It will make an equality of misery as sellers move to New York and other places where there is no levy."

The new law, if approved, would give artists royalties on a sliding scale, ranging from 4% to just a 0.25% for pieces which fetched higher prices.

It could apply up to 75 years after the artist's death.

But according to dealers, it will do nothing to help the struggling artists in their garrets.

cezanne Art for art's sake? Cezanne's family benefits from his work
They say it will limit rather than stimulate interest in an artist's work.

Rather than pay a levy, work could be sold privately or outside the EU where droit de suite does not apply.

The artist would not benefit and it could mean works leaving their country of origin and being lost to national collections.

London art dealer Peter Nahum said: "The only people who will make any money are those who do not need it, like the families of Picasso, Matisse and Chagall. The rich artists get richer and the poor get almost nothing."

The rich artists get richer and the poor get almost nothing
Peter Nahum
As well as harmonising taxes, the EU intends to redress the economic balance between "canvas artists" and artists in the music sector who benefit from successive exploitation of their works.

But critics of the levy say there is no connection between the two forms of art. Artists already get a copyright fee every time their work was reproduced in the same way that musicians receive royalties every time a copy of their work - or album - is sold.

Auctioneers 'overreacting'

UK governments have been fighting since 1994 to change Europe's mind on the levy.

London is still the capital of the world art market for dealing and expertise across the board and for the auction of the decorative arts - furniture, silver, ceramics, glass, rugs, music.

New York has rivalled it since 1987 only in headline-grabbing auctions of paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso, Cezanne and others.

But the unseen majority of London's business consists of selling artworks sent from outside the EU, notably from America, Switzerland and the Far East.

The EU claims the auctioneers are overreacting, saying sellers will swallow the tax in lieu of the cost of shipping art to New York or elsewhere instead of the UK.

But the arts market is convinced this trade would be lost if the levy was introduced.

Anthony Browne said: "At a very low price level, it is not worth shipping art from one place to another, but if you are selling a Matisse for instance it would be cheaper for the seller to go to New York."

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See also:
07 Dec 99 |  Europe
EU art levy blocked
12 May 99 |  The Economy
Genetically modified decisions
13 May 99 |  The Economy
Artful EU decisions
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