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Imports from non-European countries as a whole rose by 2.4 per cent, and exports are up 1.7 per cent. The figures represent a significant turnaround in trends from 2003, when overall exports had fallen six per cent on the previous year while imports had dropped 24 per cent. The table on page 2 gives the full picture.

In 2004, the value of pictures exported to the United States, the UK’s largest trading partner, rose by nearly 20 per cent, with a six per cent rise in imports.

With antiques, however, the story is reversed: exports to the US dropped by just under two per cent, while imports rose by more than a third.

Whatever else, the weakness of the dollar over the period is likely to have affected the movement of goods, which are valued in pounds sterling for the purpose of assessment.

Switzerland, consistently the UK’s second largest non-EU trading partner, saw even more dramatic swings on all sides. With pictures, exports there rose by 36.8 per cent, from £273m in 2003 to £373.5m. Pictures coming the other way, meanwhile, also rose – by nearly 20 per cent, from £206m in 2003 to £245.3m in 2004.

With antiques, there are equally dramatic swings. Exports to Switzerland rose by just under 20 per cent, while imports dropped by more than 40 per cent, from £52m in 2003 to £31m in 2004.

As the figures published represent the value of works of art being moved across borders rather than bought and sold, these shifts could reflect a number of factors, such as the movement of high-value individual objects or Switzerland acting as an entrepôt nation for tax and other purposes.

Hong Kong’s increasing importance as a marketplace is reflected in its rise up the league table of UK trading partners. The UK exported £37.6m worth of antiques there in 2004, a rise of nearly 50 per cent on the previous year, making Hong Kong the UK’s third most important non-EU trading partner for antiques after the US and Switzerland. Hong Kong also ranks third in antiques imports, which more than doubled to £21.4m during the year. On the picture front, at £13.7m, exports to Hong Kong rose by 128 per cent, although in import terms, it dropped out of the top ten.

The movement of antiques to and from Japan has fallen as sharply as that in pictures has risen. Antiques exports there fell by nearly a third to £13.7m as imports dropped by more than half to £7.1m. But the Japanese demand for pictures rose by nearly 130 per cent to £30.1m, and pictures going the other way also shot up, by more than 40 per cent to £34.5m.

The figures for Canada show similar trends. While their demand for antiques has dropped by more than 60 per cent to £2.8m, picture exports there have risen by 75 per cent to £25.9m.

Although now sixth as opposed to third in importance for the export of pictures, Russian demand has increased by more than 40 per cent, from £16.6m to £23.6m.