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Gallery Wins Key Legal Battle On British Import Tax

Haunch of Venison has won its fight to convince Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs office (HMRC) that video installations and light sculptures are works of art.

LONDON—Haunch of Venison has won its fight to convince Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs office (HMRC) that video installations and light sculptures are works of art. A decision by the VAT and Duties Tribunal last month reduces the value-added tax (VAT) and customs duties payable on such works when they enter the U.K.

The dispute began in September 2006, when the London gallery imported works by American artists Bill Viola and Dan Flavin. HMRC classified the pieces as “electrical devices,” subject to both customs duties and the full rate of VAT (currently 15 percent). Sculptures incur a lower VAT of 5 percent and are not subject to import duties.

According to the tribunal’s ruling, HMRC conceded that the pieces in question are works of art, but argued that “they are not works of art when they are dismantled for transport and only become works of art again when they are put together for display.”

Among the experts who provided testimony to the contrary were Haunch of Venison director Harry Blain, writer and critic Robert Cumming, Courtauld Institute of Art program leader Martin Caiger-Smith and Alexander Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Pierre Valentin, of law firm Withers LLP, which represented Haunch of Venison, said this was a landmark decision that will benefit everyone involved in the art market in the U.K. “An unfavorable decision would have had negative consequences for the British art market by discouraging the importation of important works of contemporary art into the U.K.,” he said.

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