Bjarne Melgaard’s Brush With Customs Officials Helps Change Outmoded Laws in Norway

Thanks to his protracted battle, the entire Norwegian art scene is relieved.

Bjarne Melgaard at the Munch museum, Oslo, in 2015. Via YouTube.

Artist Bjarne Melgaard ran into problems with the Norwegian customs officials, who held 16 of his art works at Oslo airport for three months, determining they were not art and were therefore subject to a VAT charge of 1.3 million Krone ($153,024.)

The works were shipped from Melgaard’s New York studio to his representing gallery, Galleri Rod Bianco in Oslo, and were held at Gardermoen Airport under the claim that sections on some canvases were printed, rather than executed by hand, and therefore are not considered paintings, according to

“The general public’s definition of what constitutes art does not always mesh with the definition of art in the (state) regulations,” Thorbjørn Jacobsen, chief operations officer at Oslo airport, told Norwegian news outlet NRK, stating he could not comment on individual cases.

“In order for a painting to be defined as a work of art, it must have been created by the hand of the artist,” he clarified.

Melgaard, who is no stranger to controversy in his native Norway, rejected the decision to de-categorize his art and refused to pay the charge as a result. “I think this is completely crazy, that some conservative forces can describe what’s art and what’s not,” Melgaard said, also casting aspersions on the customs officers’ competency in defining what may, or may not, be art.

Bjarne Melgaard Untitled 2015 Photo: Jussi Tiainen, Courtesy Galerie Forsblom

Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled (2015). Photo Jussi Tiainen, Courtesy Galerie Forsblom.

Events then escalated to a national level with Norwegian finance minister Siv Jensen finally stepping in, asking that customs release the works and deliver them to the gallery (and sparing the gallery from paying the fine). “This case … clearly shows that the current rules can have an unreasonable outcome,” Jensen said to NRK, adding that all artwork should be free of VAT.

Jensen updated the outmoded regulations, and as soon as the new law came into effect, the works were released.

“We’re very happy to finally get the works out of ‘art prison’ (customs), and into the gallery,” the gallery’s co-director Tuva Trondsdatter Trønsdal told artnet News via email.

“It has been 3 long months with bureaucracy and trying to prove that Melgaard’s paintings are art. We’re happy that the finance minister of Norway stepped in and resolved the case for us and cleaned up in an outdated law that has been a burden on the art community in Norway.”

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