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The right, which already applies in some countries, will be introduced across Europe as a whole on January 1, 2010. But the Federation of European Art Gallery Associations (FEAGA) says Europe risks becoming “a backwater for the sale of the masterpieces of 20th century art after 2010” if the measure goes ahead, chiefly because it will not apply in the United States, the world’s largest art market.

Applied to works up to 70 years after an artist’s death, the right is an extension of Droit de Suite, the levy on ongoing sales of works by living artists above a certain price threshold – currently €1000 in the UK. It is supposed to help hard-up artists who do not benefit when their works later sell for much higher sums.

The fear is that the extra costs and red tape will severely damage trade in 20th century art where dead artists make up about 80 per cent of the market.

Christopher Battiscombe, Director General of the Society of London Art Dealers, has backed the campaign since it was mooted in the summer. He dubbed it “a wake-up call to European governments” and told ATG: “The arguments for benefiting artists’ heirs in this way seem very weak and experience from the continent shows that most of the money raised is likely to go to a very few already wealthy families.”

The British Government say they will back the campaign if other EU states join them. As a Qualified Majority Voting issue, they have no right of veto against its introduction.