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The decisive moment came at lunch during the busy Council meeting on Monday when a straw poll revealed that this was no longer a measure that could go through on the nod. It was withdrawn from the agenda without a formal vote by the German presidency.

Until the last moment, no-one had been predicting such an outcome but a late surge of feeling against the principle of droit de suite, particularly in Austria where living artists petitioned against it, carried the day.

Similar or modified proposals may be reintroduced at a later date but the issue is not thought likely to be high on the list of priorities of the Finns or the Portuguese who are the next two states to take up the the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers.

It is likely to be closer to the hearts of the French who take over in the second half of 2000. It was the French who introduced the concept of a levy on the resale of an artist’s work in the 1920s, a time when Paris was famous for struggling artists with families to support. However, the French government may be taking a different view on protecting their market by then if the long-delayed reform of auction law begins to expand the Paris art market in the way many people hope and expect it will.

The chairman of the British Art Market Federation, Anthony Browne, who has been pivotal in voicing the views of our trade associations to the UK Government and EU partners, is hopeful that the late swing in opinion can be built upon. He sees signs of a growing resistance to all forms of fiscal interference in the European art market, but he is not hopeful about holding off the rise of UK import VAT to 5 per cent. Earlier this year the EC rejected the recommendations of a report of the impact of VAT on the art market which it had itself commissioned.

However, Browne is delighted to have gained more time on droit de suite. “Once such things have been enshrined in European legislation it becomes very hard to get rid of them, ” he said. This is now the case with art import VAT, and it will take unanimity among member states to remove it from the statute books.