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The figures are indicative of a general growth in the movement of art and antiques as represented by Customs and Excise figures for the past two years and a sustained and dramatic widening of the trade gap of exports over imports from £2m in 1998 to £273m in 1999 and £548m in 2000.

It should be remembered that the figures measure the value of goods transported across borders, and may not reflect closely the value of transactions actually taking place.

Customs and Excise have confirmed that there has been no change over the period in assessment methods or criteria. They say they have no explanation for the massive widening of the trade gap.

Overall, the total value of art and antiques exports rose from £1318m in 1998 to £1440m in 1999 and £1978m in 2000. The equivalent total import figures for the same period – £1316m/£1167m/£1430m – showed a drop from 1998 to 1999 before rising fairly steeply.

Exports for antiques, which increased by only 3.5 per cent in 1998, rose 19 per cent in 1999 to £553m and 17.5 per cent in 2000 to £650m. Imports for antiques fell by 10 per cent from 1998’s figure of £289m, reaching only £260m in 1999, but recovered in 2000, increasing 10 per cent to £286m.

For pictures, prints and sculpture, rises in both exports and imports were more dramatic in the year ending December 2000. Whereas exports had risen only four per cent to £887m in 1999, they shot up by 49.7 per cent in 2000 to £1328m.

Imports told a similar story, actually falling by 11.7 per cent to £907m in 1999 then rising by 26 per cent to £1144m in 2000.

The figures by country show much of the increases in each sector were attributable to the UK’s biggest non-EU business partners in the art trade, the USA and Switzerland. The changes overall can be seen most starkly when comparing the trade gap figures for the past few years. Between 1992 and 1998, the gap, which was always in favour of exports, varied from as little as £2m in 1998 to a high of about £45m in 1997. However, as reported above, the gap leapt by 1355 per cent in 1999 and by a further 100 per cent in 2000.

Some of the individual countries, such as the USA, Switzerland and Australia, consistently appear in the UK’s top ten list of clients, while others, such as Iceland, Venezuela, Chile, the Philippines, Brunei and Turkey, appear only once. Although, as with all statistics, it is important not to read too much into individual entries, the figures for these latter countries may be boosted by single consignments or a small number of high value pieces. Customs figures showing the weight of goods transported relative to their value point to this in some cases.

The introduction of import VAT on non-EU consignments to the UK at the end of June 1999 may have had an effect on totals, as could complex VAT arrangements linked to the temporary import of goods. It is also not clear how far Internet transactions or stock being shipped to and from fairs may have boosted the figures.