Ellie Allen

Bagging A Bargain: Antique and Collectible Hunting In Europe After Brexit


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Make of it what you will, but rummaging around at car boot sales, salvage yards and vintage shops is a favourite pastime for many people. Furthermore, it seems we’re driven by a deep urge to uncover dusty, long-forgotten relics that would look good displayed in the living room, or else might make us a nice bit of cash. This would explain the popularity of such TV shows as Cash in the Attic, Antiques Roadshow and Bargain Hunt. In fact, is there any other country where it would be possible to make a TV series in which the lead character is a roguish antiques dealer, as is Lovejoy?

UK magpies have long flown over to foreign shores to seek out shiny treasures – especially countries that share a love of memorabilia and kitschy cultural relics, such as France and Germany. But now that the UK has left the EU what are the implications for the antiques and collectibles world, and what ramifications does it have for amateur antique hunters?

HIGH END ART, PRICELESS ANTIQUES, OR JUST OLD CURIOSITIES FOR THE LIVING ROOM?

The collectibles industry is big business. At one end of the sector you have high-end art and antique dealers and auction houses, such as Sotheby’s, while at the other you have people hopping from one flea market to the next looking for memorabilia and collectibles. The high-end art market conducts around 20 percent of its trade with EU countries, with the vast majority of it taking place with other countries around the world, so the impact of new regulations and tariffs is potentially substantial but not as severe as was feared.

London, in fact, lies at the centre of the international art market and its position is not threatened by any competing centres such as New York or Hong Kong as much of the trading is done online and wealthy clients can afford the relatively small extra cost of administrative levies. As a matter of fact, it is flourishing in the post-Brexit environment.

Interestingly, several EU art dealers have actually opened branches in London this year in order to get closer to the centre of the action. They have likely done so in order to take advantage of the UK’s lower rate of import VAT relative to the EU. In the UK, import VAT on works of art is set at 5 percent, which is the lowest anywhere in Europe. By comparison, Italy levies a 22 percent charge.

SHOPPING FOR PERSONAL ANTIQUES AND NICK-NACKS IN EU COUNTRIES

However, most of us are not millionaire buyers, and our sights are firmly set on the lower end of the antiques and collectibles scene. Many people flock to the flea markets across the Channel to seek out a foreign bargain or perhaps a unique piece of period furniture. And the good news is that if you’re only buying items that are for yourself then you won’t need to pay import duties on them.

On the other hand, if you own a vintage or antique shop and aim to resell, there may be import restrictions you need to check out, including paying duties which are likely to be 5 percent of the purchase value. Even buying items online attracts this import fee, as many buyers have found out to their dismay since the start of 2021.

Nevertheless, it’s still a lot of fun hunting for antiques and cultural items in the EU, and even more enjoyable if you can make a short holiday of it (once COVID restrictions are lifted, of course). Some of the most popular flea market destinations that are within easy striking distance of the UK include:

  • Marché aux Puces de Vanves (Paris) is a chilled-out flea market – or brocante – where many vintage items are sold. It’s primarily aimed at selling smaller items that can fit easily into your luggage, such as vintage cameras, 1920s perfume bottles and small musical instruments. Vendors take cash only.
  • Tongeren Flea Market (Belgium) is one of the largest in the country and has over 350 stalls. Known for its Rococo and Art Deco pieces, visitors flock here from afar to search out bargains.
  • Balon del Sabato (Turin) often has over 100,000 people browsing its stalls, making it one of the biggest flea markets in Italy. It’s a sprawling affair, known for the masses of clothes, toys and footwear on offer.
  • De Haagse Antiek en Boeken Markt (Netherlands) is the place to go if you’re interested in buying old, leatherbound books. There are over 75 stalls and traders sell a range of other antiques, including chests, crockery and sundry vintage household items.
  • Ostbahnhof Flohmarkt (Berlin) is one of the main flea markets in Berlin. The city is a magpie’s paradise, and there can be up to 50 flea markets happening simultaneously at any one time. Ostbahnhof is best known for its vinyl records, stamps and coins.

Of course, there are many more flea markets around Europe. The best resource for locating them is the website fleamapket.com.

BRINGING YOUR TREASURE BACK HOME

Assuming you have wrapped up your finds in bubble wrap or cardboard, or have securely loaded any furniture into a car or van, you’ll want to get it back safely to the UK. Import duties will only apply if customs officials consider your purchases may not be for personal use (in which case, you’ll have to prove that they are). Antiques that are older than 100 years do not have an import VAT surcharge. If, on the other hand, you are taking antiques out of the UK you’ll need to apply for an export license and research the import duties of the country it is being taken to.

If you are employing a courier of haulage firm to move your goods you may have to fill out a customs declaration form in advance stating they are for your own personal use. Forms can be onerous, and you’ll likely have to state the exact dimensions, weight, value, description of the item and more. In any case, make sure you check your insurance. Often, items will be covered by your household insurance, but make sure you double check before leaving.

Under normal circumstances, some items are forbidden to import into the UK due to international conventions, including items made from ivory, tortoise shells and coral. It goes without saying that weapons, such as antique guns, swords and ceremonial daggers, may not be taken onto planes in your hand luggage. Furthermore, unused postage stamps, pearls and original artwork must always be declared, and an import tax paid on them even if they are for personal use.

BREXIT AND THE BUSINESS OF ART, ANTIQUES AND COLLECTIBLES

Beyond the obvious, such as more paperwork and customs forms to fill out, there could be further implications for the art and antiques business related to Brexit. For a start, there’s the value of the Pound. In the aftermath of the original referendum on EU membership in 2016 the value of Sterling dropped sharply. It has spent the intervening time making something of a recovery but is still at its pre-referendum level. Of course, a weaker Pound means your buying power will be curtailed in the EU, so it’s worth keeping an eye on currency movements, especially if you are a dealer and need to sell items in the EU.

There are positive developments for the sector too. The UK government is assessing opportunities to cut much of the red tape associated with antiques and art dealing that had been enacted and imposed by Brussels when the UK was an EU member. That prospect, combined with the low import duties, is making the UK a magnet for EU antiques dealers. In other words, they are bringing their stock to the UK, setting up shop and using it as a base from which to sell to the rest of the world.

All in all, however, if you’re only antiquing as a fun way to purchase interesting vintage goods to fill your home, there is no particular difference to the rules or arrangements compared to before the UK left the EU. Happy hunting!

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