Did Brexit affect UK art market imports and exports in 2016?

What do the customs figures say?

UK exports of art and antiques fell by 13.6% to £4.95 billion in 2016, while imports declined by 37% to £2.23 billion.

Having just completed my annual analysis of the trade figures, which I compile from from raw customs data, I noted significant drop-offs in values for the first half of 2016, with additional significant falls in fine art imports and exports between July and December.

Sterling declined an average of 5.9% year on year for the first six months of 2016, but the six-month year-on-year average post-referendum fell by 16.3%. So to get a true picture of how the market has changed you have to take this into account.

2016 UK Imports Exports table

Although customs returns fell across the board for the last half of 2016, the two areas where this appeared to be significant were in exports and imports of fine art beyond European Union borders – down 24.2% to £1.68 billion and down 55.2% to £524.5m respectively.

Movement within EU borders is assessed differently by HMRC because of the single market, but its figures showed a widening trade gap for fine art, with twice as many works by value heading across the channel from the UK as in the same period for 2015, while the value of works entering the UK from the EU from July to December 2016 fell by more than 60%. However, the figures are comparatively small in the context of the global market.

This year I conducted additional research to see if any Brexit effect could be detected in the second-half figures, but the picture is not clear.

On the basis of what I have seen so far, I would say that the jury is still out. The fine art side shows significant weakening beyond exchange rate issues, but the global art market contracted in 2016 anyway, so you would expect to see cross-border trade decline.

Frieze Week sales boosted confidence

However, Frieze Week sales at the beginning of October underpinned confidence in the UK market, with Christie’s alone netting over £90 million for Post-War and Contemporary Art, including 19 artist auction records.

With an exchange rate of $1.27 to the pound then – compared to around $1.53 at this time in 2015 – this series would have been a very attractive prospect to overseas buyers. It also shows London’s ability to attract great works for sale.

Having said that, fine art imports to the UK for the second half of the year fell by more than 50% in value on the same period in 2015, possibly reflecting not just the weakness in sterling but also the likelihood that this would make London a less attractive place for consignors in the short term.

Nonetheless, all of this needs to be taken in the context of the long-term trend upwards, and we will have to wait to see how the next two years pan out to see if our changing relationship with the European Union will alter the UK’s global market status.

Drilling down to the detail, not much has changed in the structure of the UK’s trading relationships.

The United States remains the most significant partner (see table above), but the figures show significant market shrinkage: the UK’s fine art exports to the US were down by 20% at £1.85 billion, while imports fell 40% to £552.3m. Exports of antiques to the US dropped by 24% to £431.1m, and imports declined by over 30% to £224.5m.

Fine art exports to Hong Kong remain stable amid global decline

The two great entrepots who dominate trade relations with the UK art market after the US, Switzerland and Hong Kong, also saw dramatic change, with fine art exports to and imports from the former down nearly 40% at £584.6m and £507.8m respectively, while fine art imports from Hong Kong crashed by almost three quarters. However, fine exports there remained very stable at £81.3m, showing an overall healthier trade gap for the UK with the former British territory.

One of the most significant changes in trading partnerships came with South Korea, now acknowledged as an increasingly strong buying base: exports of pictures there rose by more than £450% to nearly £90m.

It is important to remember that the trade figures measure the value of goods crossing UK borders rather than actual sales, but they tend to mirror much of the market’s trends and spheres of influence.

2016-2015 July to Dec comparisons