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The Impact of Brexit on the UK Art World

The Impact of Brexit on the UK Art World

After the EU Referendum was held in Britain in June 2016, with 51.9% voting to leave, a countdown followed until the UK officially left the EU at 11 pm (GMT) on the 30th January 2020 – the withdrawal agreement did not come into force until the 31st  December of that same year.

According to Bendor Grosvenor, art historian and columnist at The Art Newspaper, we are at a time where it is more difficult to trade art between the UK and Europe than it was fifty years ago. European buyers who import art from the UK now have to pay an import VAT according to specific countries’ rates – 9% in the Netherlands, 7% in Germany and 5.5% in France. The latter is becoming the preferred channel for art sales at it has the lowest import VAT rate.

Due to the new EU legislation on the import of cultural goods, which will be gradually implemented between January 2020 and 2025, cultural goods (archaeological finds) imported into the EU will need a license issued by the exporting country. Proof of the legal export will also be required from the origin country. 

Before Brexit officially came into force, many galleries and collectors moved their collections away from the UK. Shipping firm Cadogan Tate commented on how galleries and dealers with EU buyers would be highly affected by import duties, leading them to start moving their artworks. For example, Cadogan Tate moved a quarter of a client’s collection, valued at $5 million, from the UK to the EU.

However, the opposite route was also followed, as some galleries have very strong UK-based clients. Robertaebasta gallery moved over 50 artworks from Milan to the UK, arguing that most of the gallery’s clients are in London.

In the UK art community, the most negative response to Brexit has probably come from artists. At St. Pancras International train station Tracy Emin unveiled an installation where a neon text saying ‘I want my time with you’ could be seen by the Eurostar train coming from Paris or Brussels. The artist wanted to oppose Brexit by publicly reaching European travellers coming to London.

In 2018, Anish Kapoor created a work titled ‘A Brexit, A Broxit, We All Fall Down’, depicting a UK map with a wound in the middle of the territory symbolising the wound caused by a no-deal Brexit. 

As part of his Only Human exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Martin Parr depicted a series of portraits that navigated British identity post-Brexit. 

Does Brexit Call An Exit For Art In The UK?

Public reaction to Brexit has culminated in the form of marches and protests. In the case of the art world, artists have been at the forefront of vocal opposition – although many galleries and dealers who disagree with this political event have started to advocate for a European move of their markets or have begun to establish their presence in Europe.

One of the earliest steps was taken by David Zwirner, who announced in July 2019 the future opening of a new space in Paris. According to the German art dealer David Zwirner, once Brexit happened his gallery would become a British gallery. As a European himself, he still wanted to have a European Gallery. 

Following a similar move, in October 2019,  Pace Gallery revealed that they were looking for a location in Paris. The desire to maintain a presence in Paris was driven by the possible changes that Brexit was believed to bring to the art market and the newly-found establishment of Paris as a re-rising art centre.

In the same month as Pace Gallery, White Cube disclosed that they were also expanding to the French capital, hoping to nurture Paris’ return to the prestigious art hub it had once been. 

By the end of 2019, these three major international galleries had plans to be present in Paris, while maintaining their reach in London.

Both Zwirner and Mathieu Paris – senior director of White Cube in London – have argued that since the Brexit vote, Paris has been rapidly growing as a visual arts centre. Paris considers the move to France not to be an emergency solution to Brexit, explaining that for the past few years the city of Paris was re-flourishing as a prestigious area for the market. Meanwhile, co-director of Victoria Miro Gallery, Glenn Scott-Wright, asserts that a European base is very much needed for galleries and that the shift to Paris could even be definite. 

On the speculations of Paris dethroning London as Europe’s primary art hub, we can establish that this is a premature thought. Many major galleries are establishing spaces in Paris, but they still keep a tight hold on their London galleries.

However, some galleries have not been lucky or interested enough to maintain two locations.

In October 2020, Marian Goodman Gallery announced the closure of their London space, switching it for a new exhibition model – Marian Goodman Projects – where exhibitions of the gallery’s artists will feature in select buildings throughout the city. 

Gallery founder Marian Goodman expressed the need for broader flexibility in London after the uncertainty that Brexit introduced in the art market. Goodman believes that the current political situation has changed London’s role, and therefore international galleries need to establish a new presence in major European cities.

During the past year, the economic impact of Brexit may have been experienced more strongly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Italian art dealers Matteo Lampertico, from ML Fine Art, and Ursula Casamonti, from Tornabuoni Art gallery, have felt compelled to close their London galleries. 

Lampertico argues that due to the higher customs, shipping costs, added paperwork, and new market and travelling restrictions caused by the pandemic, the gallery has experienced a brutal decrease in clients. In addition, Casamonti decided that leaving the ‘ghost town’ that Mayfair was becoming was a strong decision for the business.

Cortesi Gallery has also seen the need to close their Mayfair space, hoping, like the others, that once there is a higher incentive in the UK art market, they will be able to return to London.


The aftermath of Brexit has been lived in a less challenging manner by different sectors within the arts. Mega-auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s have no plans on relocating any aspect of their businesses to other areas. Their intention was always to align their legal framework along with the political progressions.

Christie’s updated their clients on the new procedures that were to be followed after the UK had officially left the EU. According to the auction house, there is confidence that the long-term impact for the industry will be positive – following the strong results from past auctions. Christie’s will, of course, follow custom guidelines on shipments between the UK and the EU and encourage clients to make sure they are aware of the VAT rules.

While Sotheby’s and Christie’s have seen a drop in sales of 16% and 25%, respectively, this decrease has also occurred simultaneously to the Covid-19 pandemic. They are therefore confident that, following vaccination plans and full re-opening of markets, a boost in the trading of art will be experienced. 


Written by Eugenia Pacheco Aisa.

Illustrated by Sanni Pyhänniska.

Looking for more art content? Check out Mouthing Off’s Art Section.

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