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On the export side, fine art showed an even bigger rise, up 24.5 per cent, while on the import side antiques other than fine art showed the biggest leap, up 31 per cent. As usual, the overwhelming sources of imports and destinations for exports were the USA and Switzerland, which between them account for 87 per cent of all imports (USA: 53%, Switzerland: 34%) and 88.5 per cent of all exports (USA: 71%, Switzerland: 17.5%).

Notable details include the strong influence of a single powerful buyer from the Qatari royal family, responsible for boosting antiques exports to Qatar to such an extent it registers as fifth on the 2002 scale.

The most dramatic changes have occurred with the movement of art and antiques to and from Canada. The value of pictures imported to the UK is up by more than 1000 per cent, from £4m to £44m, while traffic the other way in this sector has fallen by nearly two thirds. However, the weight increase for the same sector is only 51 per cent, indicating that the figures have been distorted by the movement of a small number of very high-value items. A similar distortion would explain the sudden appearance of Trinidad and Tobago in the top ten for picture exports. That said, both Canadian imports and exports of other antiques are up by significant margins too.

Looking back to 2001, the same countries continue to dominate the top end of the scale in each sector in 2002, but South Korea now appears as a strong presence as a destination for all art and antiques as well as making it onto the top ten for UK exports of pictures. Hong Kong has also shown a large increase in the value of antiques it is importing from the UK, up 56 per cent on the previous year.

Whilst the exports and imports will reflect a degree of the levels of sales in art and antiques, it should be remembered that the values given here relate to the movement of objects, so one should be wary of drawing swift conclusions from the figures. For instance, a dramatic percentage swing on a low base value, such as that for antiques imports from Canada, up 260 per cent from just under £1m in 2001 to £3.5m in 2002, could be explained simply by the movement of a single high-value object without any sale actually taking place.

Likewise, while an overall surge in exports, as is shown for pictures to Switzerland, may reflect an increase in the UK’s domestic sales, it might equally represent a loss of UK market share as objects are moved for sale to countries not subjected to restrictive EU taxes such as Import VAT. However, these figures do provide the raw data for further research.