Will Brexit Uncertainty Let Paris Reclaim Its Status as Europe’s Art Capital? We Consulted a Range of Experts

We polled dealers on the ground at FIAC to see if they thought the City of Lights was poised to retake its crown from London.

The Paris International Contemporary Art Fair (Foire Internationale d'Art Contemporain - FIAC) at the Grand Palais, in Paris. Photo by Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images.

French President Emmanuel Macron invited leading art-world figures to the Élysée Palace during FIAC last Friday. The symbolic event “in honor of artists and creation” in Paris contrasted sharply with a huge anti-Brexit march in London the following day, where leading figures in the British art world were among the nearly 700,000 protesters. As Brexit negotiations intensify, no one on either side of the Channel, pro- or anti-Brexit, knows exactly what will happen as the March 2019 deadline to leave the European Union draws near.

As negotiations on the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU grow ever more complex, art-world players can only speculate on its impact on London and Paris’s positions in the art world. Dealers based in London face complications surrounding the employment of European staff and delays in the transport of works of art through increased border security in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit. On the other hand, London could use the opportunity to shed some of the bureaucracy surrounding EU directives.

While a cloud of uncertainty hung over the Frieze tents in London this fall, many dealers at FIAC used the event held in the Grand Palais to make a splash, securing sales earlier than is usual for the leisurely French fair. The event was boosted by the attendance of curators and trustees of leading US institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Guggenheim. (Frieze also boasted its fair share of big names and institutions, including Melissa Chiu of the Hirshhorn Museum, the Studio Museum’s Thelma Golden, and LACMA’s Michael Govan.)

The contrasting atmospheres and abiding uncertainty has prompted observers to try to predict what Brexit might mean for London and Paris—and whether the French capital, with Macron’s backing, could become more attractive as an art center at London’s expense.

Jennifer Flay, the director of FIAC, told the Financial Times ahead of the fair that while nobody in France wanted Brexit, “certainly some prospects have been boosted because of it.” Flay declined to elaborate further to artnet News about the fair’s post-Brexit strategy.

Meanwhile, the leading Austrian-born gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac, who has spaces in Paris, London, and Salzburg, told us: “In the last years Frieze was always stronger in terms of sales, but FIAC is now on the same level of turnovers as Frieze because the international and especially the American collectors are back in Paris.” Ropac’s sales at FIAC included two works by Georg Baselitz for $518,000 and $403,000.

Ropac shares a general frustration at the ongoing uncertainty. “We cannot prepare for a situation that may change several times in the next months,” he said. But the dealer remains confident that “London’s art market is big and strong enough to survive Brexit,” albeit with a little more red tape.

Installation view, Hauser & Wirth at FIAC 2018. Courtesy the artists / estates and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Marc Domage.

A Boost for FIAC?

This year, FIAC welcomed some new names, and several big fish returning after an absence. Hauser & Wirth, which had been absent from the Paris fair since 2015, returned with a booth curated around the theme of desire. Speaking to artnet News, the gallery’s senior director Neil Wenman said the time “felt right” to return to Paris, adding that the new two-week break between Frieze and FIAC “gives you time to catch your breath.”

But the dealer was measured when speculating about the consequences of Brexit, pointing out that, “as an international gallery, we have close ties to the UK, Europe, the US, and across Asia. We are following the situation closely and expect to continue with our activities as planned.” He acknowledged that the market might change, but ultimately, “it’s not a competition between London and Paris.”

By the end of the fair’s first day, Hauser & Wirth had already made big-ticket sales. Philip Guston’s Martyr (1978), a $6 million painting, found a buyer, and three works by Louise Bourgeois sold for $2.5 million, $350,000, and $100,000. Wenman maintained that sales were comparable with London, taking into account the gallery’s presence at both Frieze London and Frieze Masters.

The Paris fair is steadily gaining ground as a destination for international art dealers and collectors. The London- and Hong Kong-based Ben Brown Fine Arts participated in FIAC for the first time this year. “The prestige of the fair has increased dramatically over the past years,” said Christopher Baer, the director of the gallery’s London branch. The fair held in the Grand Palais “manages to attract very good collectors,” he added. When asked about Brexit, Baer was sure about one thing: “The gallery was against Brexit.” As to how it will impact the market, Baer replied, “I wish I knew.”

What Brexit Could Mean

One of the potential impacts of Brexit could be a longer wait time at the border for enhanced customs checks if, as looks likely, the UK leaves the European customs union. Another could be a reduction in the UK’s import VAT duty. At five percent, the UK currently has the lowest import tax allowed by the EU, making it the most favorable entry point into the Single Market for art.

After leaving the EU, the UK would be free to lower or remove the tax, making it more competitive with markets like the US and China. While this would strengthen the UK’s positioning in the global market, it could also present an opportunity for France, which has the second lowest import VAT in the EU at 5.5 percent, to become the new global entry point for artworks into the EU.

That said, those speculating that France may overtake the UK as a market stronghold might be making an overstatement given that the UK boasted a 20 percent share of the global art market last year, most of which was on trade outside of the EU, whereas France made up just seven percent, according to the 2018 Art Market Report prepared by UBS and Art Basel. Statistics in artnet News’s Intelligence Report also show that in the first six months of 2018, France’s $452.5 million share of the fine art auction market pales in comparison to the UK’s $2 billion.

“The implications of Brexit are still far from clear, for any industry,” Frieze fairs director, Victoria Siddall, told us. “With this in mind, we spoke to a range of people working in galleries about what’s important and concerning for their business and what we should seek to preserve.” Siddall explains that they found consensus on four key issues: a desire to maintain the current rate of 5 percent VAT, for the free circulation of artworks between the UK and the EU, a full waiver for artworks imported under Temporary Admission, and freedom of movement for people.

The Paris International Contemporary Art Fair (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain – FIAC) at the Grand Palais, in Paris. Photo by Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images.

Johann König, who recently opened a gallery in London, told us that the UK capital was better for sales than Paris. Although he regrets the uncertainty rendered by a no-deal Brexit, he admits that if Britain leaves the Single Market—which he does not believe it will—it offers “great chances” for the UK market.

At the end of September, the Berlin- and Paris-based gallery Max Hetzler also defied Brexit jitters to open a new space in London. “With or without Brexit, London will always be home to amazing artists and therefore deserves the presence of European galleries,” gallery partner Samia Saouma said.

Another, much more minor art-market uncertainty—over where FIAC would take place during the renovation of the Grand Palais—ended this summer. The fair, along with Paris’ splashiest fashion shows and blockbuster exhibitions, will take place in a temporary venue built in the Champ de Mars, near the Eiffel Tower. The magnificent setting of the Grand Palais is a significant draw of the fair, which attracted more than 72,500 visitors this year. But it sounds as if Paris is planning to build a venue that has more va-va-voom than Frieze’s utilitarian white tents.

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