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Although there has been a drop of only seven per cent in this category of import from the United States, the world’s biggest market, imports from Switzerland, the UK’s second biggest trading partner, are down by more than 60 per cent.

The £353m fall in fine art imports from Switzerland is the most dramatic shift in what has generally proved a relatively stable market compared to 2002.

The 2003 hole in fine art imports led to an overall imports decline of close to 20 per cent, from £1892m in 2002 to £1525m in 2003. Exports overall dropped only 2.6 per cent, from £2289m in 2002 to £2230m in 2003.

These rises and falls should be set in the context of the changes from 2001 to 2002, when there was a significant rise across the board in both imports (16.5 per cent) and exports (21.5 per cent).

The USA retain their status as the UK’s top trading partner, accounting for 62 per cent of all exports and 57 per cent of all imports.

Other notable changes include the shift in influence of countries slightly further down the scale. The Qatari Royal family, who registered significantly as the UK’s fifth most important export customer for antiques in 2003 with £23.7m worth of goods, have shot up the scale to third place behind the US and Switzerland, with a 41 per cent rise in acquisitions to £33.4m. In addition, they appear in the top ten list for UK imports for the first time in 2003, again coming third to the US and Switzerland, this time with £22.5m worth of antiques. These figures show just how much single wealthy collectors can affect the world market.

France, who did not appear in the top ten in any category for 2002, now register as the UK’s sixth most important destination for pictures (£13.5m), our fifth most important source of pictures (£24m) and our sixth most important source of antiques (£5.2m).

The Netherlands, also absent from the 2002 charts, appear in a significant role as the UK’s fourth most important destination for pictures (£16.2m), seventh most important source of pictures (£12.4m) and tenth most important source of antiques (£1.6m).

Russia, meanwhile, remains an increasingly important trading partner for pictures.