The European VAT: Good for Tax Revenue, Bad for the Commercial Art Market?
December 5, 2019
by Elizabeth R. Lash, Esq.
As an American, one might be forgiven for assuming that Europe, with its traditional support for the arts (at least, as a cultural phenomenon), would be equally supportive in its tax regime for the same. While in some limited instances, the European Union continues to provide a more favorable regime for the independent artist, the trend towards an ultimately higher value-added tax (“VAT”) on the sale, import and export of artwork, particularly with respect to art sold by galleries and in the resale market, may discourage the growth of an EU-wide commercial art market in comparison with more favorable tax regimes outside the EU.
VAT was initially intended to be used as a single tax rate applicable to all goods and services across all European Union member states. While the standard rate was originally set at 15% in 2006, member states could theoretically request reduced rates in one or two categories, set at no less than 5%. In reality, as each member state negotiated the terms of its entry into the EU, the list of categories has expanded to at least 21, with rates above and below the standard rates (which already varies from 17% to 27%), along with multiple categories of rates below 5% (zero rates, “parking rates” (i.e., rates negotiated with entry into the EU), and super reduced rates). As well, categories of rates are inconsistently drawn, from too narrow to overly broad: it includes, among others, such categories as printed books, e-books, cultural institutions, household cleaning, sporting facility use, bicycles, and writers and composers.
When it comes to artwork, VAT rates vary widely, ranging from 5% (Malta) to 25% (Sweden) (although there is a reduced rate for independent artists’ sales). In addition, VAT may be calculated on the margin (i.e., the difference between the original sale price and the purchase price), instead of under the standard or reduced rate (whichever is applicable to artwork in that particular member state). In a number of member states, the VAT may be set at multiple rates: one for independent artists; another for galleries and dealers; and still another for the import or export of art.
Further complicating this picture, the EU Commission may not only pressure (or even sue) a member state as to the categories for which reduced rates are permitted, but may also regulate individual tax cases affecting artists and collectors. One example in particular is the Flavin case, whose outcome confounded the international art community (and sets an unfavorable precedent in future, similar circumstances). In 2006, a British gallery (named the “Haunch of Venison”) imported two well-known American conceptual artists’ sculptures: Dan Flavin’s light sculpture, and Bill Viola’s video installations. The former consisted of several tubes of fluorescent lights, while the latter consisted of several audio-visual productions playing on various projection screens. The British customs office imposed a 20% rate instead of the reduced 5% rate for artwork. However, upon appeal to the British VAT and Duties Tribunal (the “Tribunal”), the reduced rate was re-instituted in 2008.
But despite this local regulator’s final decision (with no further appeal by the parties to the EU courts), the EU Commission weighed in anyway with its own regulation, issued in September 2010, which specifically overturned the Tribunal’s decision, ostensibly to effectuate the uniform taxation rules on imported goods. The EU Commission found that it was not the installations themselves which constituted artwork, but the results of such installations, whether of the “light effect” of Dan Flavin’s light sculpture, or the videos screened on Bill Viola’s video installations. Thus, in effect, the EU Commission found that the installations should have been taxed just as if a hardware or electronics store had imported lightbulbs and video components. For conceptual artists, this represented a major blow to the sale in and import of their artwork into Europe.
Then take Germany. Germany formerly assessed a reduced VAT of 7% on sales of art (other than photography). However, due to pressure from the EU Commission, which had opened proceedings against Germany regarding this reduced rate category, Germany passed legislation to raise the rate to 19%, effective January 1, 2014 (Germany’s standard VAT rate since 2007). In response, German federal legislators passed a national directive that permitted the tax to be assessed on only 30% of the purchase price, relying in part on an exception to the VAT directive that had been used in France for several years. But the application of this directive was restricted less than a year later by the German states to artwork priced under 500 Euros, and a few other categories, essentially undercutting the law’s essential purpose—to provide a more favorable rate for the commercial art market. Meanwhile, artists selling out of their studios remain subject to the 7% rate. While this may be acceptable for those select artists who sell out of their own studios, it does not bode well for those who are represented by galleries.
In 2014, in another instance of muddying the tax waters, the French government increased VAT on the sale of art in France from 7% to 10%, while still permitting imports of non-EU artwork to be taxed at 5.5%. Only a year later, the French legislators acknowledged this inconsistency, and reduced the VAT on direct sales by French artists to 5.5%, effective January 1, 2015. Meanwhile, in Spain, the current VAT on artwork was raised from 8% to 21% in September 2012, initially as part of the general rate assessed on goods and services related to “culture.” Within a year, after much hue and outcry, Spain decreased the rate again to 10%. Meanwhile, in Italy, the VAT on the sale and import of artwork is still 22%.
The dust may eventually settle on the various VAT rates and their application, but the newest wrinkle is a regulation (Council Implementing Regulation (EU) No 1042/2013) which changes how VAT is assessed—from the place of supply to the place of purchase. While this does not affect traditional visual artists and sculptors, it does impact those who are considered to supply services or goods digitally to consumers—for instance, freelance website designers. The regulation, effective January 1, 2015, requires such businesses to assess VAT based on the country of the purchaser, rather than the VAT of their own country, placing yet another burden on artists in figuring out the application of VAT—even though the regulation was meant, in part, to apply to the likes of e-retailers such as Amazon.com.
In light of the fluctuations in tax rates and their applications, with the ultimate trend inching towards a uniformly high VAT rate, the art market looks nowhere near as enticing in the EU as it does in those countries and locales not subject to the vagaries of the VAT rate debate. In the U.S., for instance, no VAT exists (although, of course, the U.S. does have a sales tax), and there is no import duty assessed on original works of art. Hong Kong does even better—it has no sales tax, import tax, or export tax on artwork. To some degree, the numbers back this up: according to an annual study conducted by Arts Economics for the European Fine Art Foundation, in 2013, the U.S. accounted for 38% of the global market by value, while the EU as a whole dropped 3% points to 32%. (The UK ranked separately at 20%–perhaps not a surprise in light of its 5% reduced VAT rate on artwork, the Flavin case notwithstanding.) Moreover, in the EU itself, the numbers for those member states with the highest VATs declined or remained the same. And while Hong Kong and Singapore did not rank individually as the top winners in 2013 (having perhaps to do with factors other than VAT or customs duties), still, such figures may show in part the effect of applicable tax regimes.
Then there are the so-called “free ports,” located around the globe, which have become popular as a way to store works of art intended primarily as an investment. A free port is essentially a tax haven: artwork may be shipped directly to the free port, and as long it is stored there, VAT will not be assessed on the import. (Of course, once the work is shipped outside the free port to its new destination, any applicable tax will be assessed.) An additional benefit for potential purchasers (depending on the local laws applicable to the free port) is that VAT may not be assessed on any sales of artwork made within the free port—at least not until the artwork has left the free port. (So, hypothetically speaking, if a sale has been made, but the work never leaves the free port, VAT will never be assessed.) Arguably, the art fair Art Basel became popular just for that reason, having made its initial home base in a Swiss free port. As of right now, there are free ports located in Switzerland, Luxembourg, Singapore, and Beijing. (One of the best indications of how popular the Singapore free port has become is that Christie’s auction house now has an office located there.)
The EU Commission has previously expressed that VAT rates are not to be used to control social and economic policy in the EU, and clearly is increasingly attempting to pressure member states, whether through regulation, litigation, or other alternative avenues, to raise VAT rates to a uniformly high rate. However, in the face of global competition, one can only wonder what this trend may mean for the EU in the future as a major player in the commercial art markets.
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About the Author: Elizabeth R. Lash, Esq., serves as in-house counsel at Kroll, where she focuses on reviewing agreements relating to cyber security and data breach notification.
DISCLAIMER: This article was prepared by Ms. Lash in her personal capacity; the opinions are the author’s own, and do not reflect the view of Kroll Associates, Inc. or of its affiliates.