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Confirming the impression of a difficult trading environment, the survey (backed by spot checks made at Companies House) found over 40 per cent of dealers had experienced a fall in sales compared with only 22 per cent of dealers who had experienced a decline the previous year.

The period 2000-01 had seen 42 percent of BADA dealers report an increase in turnover but last year, blighted by an economic downturn and the terrorist attacks, only 21 per cent said year-on-year sales had increased. The negative changes in sales figures were seen in all disciplines but particularly marked for furniture, silver and jewellery dealers.

The absence of American buyers was cited as a primary reason for the shortfall. Sales to the United States, that in 2001 had accounted for a massive 43 per cent of BADA dealers’ sales, fell last year to 37 per cent.

Commenting on the survey BADA secretary general Elaine Dean said: “The findings of the survey confirm what I had suspected. The trading climate for dealers is not easy. Ask any Mayfair hotelier and he will confirm that American visitors are not here in their usual numbers. Many members rely on their international customers for a large part of their business, so it is not a great surprise that fewer visitors means fewer sales.”

Nevertheless the overall reliance upon overseas sales remained high at 60 per cent of the total – most pronounced in the case of members based in London and the South East where 66 per cent of sales (by value) were exported. Outside the Home Counties, British buyers still dominate accounting for 80 per cent of business last year, well up from the 2001 figure of 68 per cent.

While three-quarters of members responding to the survey have a shop or gallery, as much as 21 per cent of sales were made from the principal antiques fairs where 71 per cent of members exhibit.

The proportion of dealers exhibiting at overseas fairs, a mere 12 per cent in 1997, had risen to 21 per cent, although there was little change in the importance of the Internet which currently accounts for just 3 per cent of sales for BADA members.

The aggregate turnover of BADA dealers was estimated at £722 million, as much as one third of sales made by the British dealing community (according to the TEFAF Survey of The European Art Market in 2002) and greater than the turnover of any one of the largest UK auctioneers.