President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump whose administration is proposing a 25% import duty on Chinese goods, including art and antiques. Image by Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons.

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The proposed 25% tariff on $300bn-worth of Chinese goods, including technology, food and chemicals, is part of President Donald Trump’s escalating US trade war with China.

In August 2018, the art market successfully argued for the removal of Chinese art imports from a list of goods facing a 10% tax.

However, in May this year, Chinese art – defined by US trade authorities as ‘exceeding 100 years, paintings, drawings and sculpture’ – appeared on a new list of goods facing 25% import tariffs.

“Disproportionate harm”

Speaking at a US trade hearing in Washington, DC on June 21, art market lawyer Peter Tompa argued that a tax in Chinese art would cause “disproportionate harm” to small and medium-sized US antiques dealers, collectors and museums.

Instead, new import duties would “perversely” benefit China’s art market, in particular its auction houses, as the country seeks to repatriate its art in order to sell it locally.

Tompa, a partner at Bailey & Ehrenberg PLLC, was testifying in his role as executive director of the Global Heritage Alliance.

After the hearing, Tompa told ATG that US trade officials “seemed receptive to what I had to say,” adding however that “who knows what will happen”.

Imports from UK 'worth as much as $65m a year'

As part of his testimony, Tompa referenced the potential impact of a tax on US allies in Europe and Japan, as ports of origin for Chinese art imports.

Trade officials asked about the UK in particular, as a major art and antiques trading partner of the US, and the value of trade in Chinese antiques and collectables between the two countries.

Tompa quoted an estimate supplied by the British Antique Dealers’ Association, which puts the value of art and antiques of Chinese origin exported from the UK to the US to be worth as much as $65m a year.   

‘Mistakenly listed’

Tompa began his testimony by recalling a US government pledge that “prior product exclusions will not be affected” by the new tax.

“It is possible that [antiques and collectables] were mistakenly listed for 25% tariffs,” Tompa told the hearings. 

Unlike other product categories on the tariff list, Chinese antiques and works of art “are unlike most manufactured goods,” Tompa argued.

“Art is not typically subject to customs duties because our government has generally sought to encourage cultural exchange,” he told trade officials.

Tompa was one of more than 300 representatives of industries threatened by the new tariffs, testifying in Washington, DC over seven days earlier this month.