Anxious London Art Dealers Are Hatching Emergency Plans to Ship Art Abroad as Brexit Negotiators Get a Two-Week Extension

The mood in the UK is apprehensive as the nation waits to see how Prime Minister Theresa May will proceed.

An anti-Brexit protester demonstrates outside the House of Parliament in London, England. Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images.
An anti-Brexit protester demonstrates outside the House of Parliament in London, England. Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images.

Leading London galleries and auction houses are holding their breath now that the European Union has granted the UK a brief extension to figure how precisely how it plans to leave Europe.

In what has been described as the biggest crisis facing the UK since the Second World War, two years of failed negotiations between the British government and the EU have resulted in stalemate. With the UK Parliament, like the nation as a whole, deeply divided, Prime Minister Theresa May has so far failed to get a withdrawal deal ratified.

On March 21, the EU gave May two extra weeks for a third attempt to get a plan through Parliament. She faces an uphill task, however, having alienated many Members of Parliament, including ones in her own Conservative Party, by appearing to blame them for the debacle.  

As a precaution against a no-deal Brexit, London dealer Stuart Shave has shipped sculptures by Eva Rothschild to the Venice Biennale early, to avoid the risk of them being held up at a Channel port should the UK abruptly leave the EU not on March 29 but now April 12.

The international gallerist Thaddeus Ropac tells artnet News that his gallery was on standby to move valuable works from London to Paris next week. But with the extension of Brexit negotiations, that emergency measure is on hold. “Now we are waiting,” he says. “Whatever steps galleries have taken might be outdated tomorrow.”

Christie’s and Sotheby’s have been planning for various scenarios by creating Brexit working groups. A Christie’s spokesperson says that representatives from across the auction house are monitoring tax, import/export, currency, and exchange rate implications. They are also making contingency plans for shipping. A Sotheby’s spokesperson says its Brexit group is also monitoring the situation closely.

Meanwhile, some London dealers are still hoping that Brexit can be reversed. The homepage of Alison Jacques Gallery prominently points visitors to Revoke Article 50, a campaign that garnered more than three million signatures in less than 48 hours.

“The less likely it looks that Theresa May’s deal will go through, the more I think Brexit will be reversed,” Jacques tells arnet News.  

Shave has added the petition to his homepage as well, and also shared the campaign on his gallery’s Instagram account. “In politics, symbols are everything,” he says. The parliamentary petition grew so quickly that it crashed the site several times. At one point, the total rose by an estimated 1,500 names a minute. “I became hooked watching it,” Shave says.

Whatever happens in the following weeks, Ropac thinks London’s place in the international art market will not be diminished. “Brexit will not stop people coming to London,” he says. “The art is here, the museums are here, the auctions are here. It just makes our lives very complicated.”


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