As the pandemic fades and the world reopens, dealers are at last facing the day-to-day implications of Brexit regulations.
For some firms, little has changed. Either their business is confined mostly to the UK or the US or they can afford specialist shipping companies and in-house logistic teams.
But much of the trade consists of small businesses, often one-manbands, that have spent years zipping across to the continent in a van to buy and sell.
For those dealerships, Brexit may have changed the rhythm of the business, but many are squaring up to the paperwork, the fees and the stress as they carry on transporting their stock themselves.
For example, Darren Hudson of Hudson Antiques, London, has been in the trade since 1992 and has long enjoyed trips to France and Italy to source stock once or twice a month.
Overseas buying is integral to his business and he admits he could have outsourced the transportation of goods. However, he worried about delays working with larger firms and lack of experience with the smaller ones.
“So I’m doing it myself because it gives me more control”, he tells ATG.
He has had to cut back to two or three trips per year. There are new costs involved but “it’s the time, the anxiety, the stress that’s the problem”, he says.
Mostly that refers to paperwork, listing the individual items to be transported and ensuring that all have their original invoices, and organising these can blossom into a huge job.
The rules for transporting goods are briefly these: all commercial items must be declared with a commercial invoice explaining to customs officials what is being imported and for what purpose, including the type of object, its age, its place of production and its materials.
An abbreviation called a commodity code must be assigned to each item – this ensures that the correct amount of import VAT and duty is paid, and informs customs if the item requires a licence. Those commodity codes listed under chapter 97 of the Tariff include ‘antiques’ – items more than 100 years old.
These codes are crucial. On one hand, they trigger a lower rate of import taxes. On the other, a mislabelled object can be held up in customs or returned to the seller.
Works of art, collectors’ items and antiques imported from the EU to mainland Great Britain are subject to an import VAT of 5% whereas ‘vintage’ goods, of less than 100 years, are charged the standard 20%. Duty may also be charged for some items unless Preference (preferential rate of duty, which is to say a reduced rate of customs duty) is claimed.
There are declaration fees for every invoice.
Another challenge has been added this year with a new regulation requiring all vehicles carrying commercial goods – whether car, van or truck (even when empty) – to have a goods movement reference (GMR).
For those who are used to treating a trip to Europe like a drive to the next county it is frustrating and sometimes overwhelming.
‘Worst possible scenario’
“Brexit has been the worst possible scenario for the importing and exporting of art and antiques. On my journey back from Paris recently there were trucks queuing for miles up the M20 delaying the traffic”, says dealer Julia Boston, of King’s Road, Chelsea.
She has long done business in France, buying from there and transporting goods back to her UK base herself, as well as selling to European buyers.
Shipping costs have escalated (by Boston’s estimate what once would have been €1200 is now €3000) and administrative time has increased exponentially.
“Where it would have once taken 40 minutes or so, it is now taking up to six or seven hours”, she adds.
What is more, says Cambridgeshire dealer Kevin Hairsine, “there’s a lot of information out there about what you need to do, but not how you need to do it. If you’re not prepared, you’re on your own and you’re at the mercy of customs officials. It used to be so easy.”
He took matters into his own hands when he finished a qualification in Customs Compliance to Level 3 at the online UK Customs Academy and launched Hairsines Customs Clearance with his wife Jen. It provides general advice and industry-specific customs clearance services for those struggling with the new regulations.
Since starting the business last year they have taken on more than 200 clients, the majority small to medium enterprises. With the buying season heating up in France and lockdown restrictions relaxing, they say they are getting busier by the day.
Hairsine urges dealers to take longer on their buying trips to the continent to ensure their paperwork is done correctly or use Delayed Declaration through an agent. But he is also optimistic that it will get easier with time.
“Yes, there’s more bureaucracy”, he says, “but by using our service dealers have realised that it’s still possible to buy abroad. People will learn what they have to do over time.”
For now, many dealers are still wary of the system. Tim Bryars, of Bryars & Bryars in Cecil Court, London, is organiser of the London Map Fair which he stages in June for the first time since Covid struck. He has sought support for his exhibitors through outside shipping, but is alive to the possibility that it might not be a perfect solution.
“Brexit is clearly an issue”, he says. “There is an appetite among dealers to come to our fair and we are stronger than ever in exhibitors from the US, but some of our regulars from the EU have fallen away. Informally we are told it is no problem getting maps here, but people are encountering unexpected obstacles when trying to return with them to their home countries.”
For the upcoming fair Bryars has two dealers, one from Greece, trialling a specialist shipper and packer, with an eye to publicising it as a solution for exhibitors next year.
“That’s no guarantee that overseas customs agents will be properly briefed about the legitimate procedures for returned goods”, he adds. “However, if a few brave dealers are willing to try this year it should be easier for everyone in 2023.”
Meanwhile, those who have made an early start have a pioneer pride.
Marc and Marcia Harrison of Harrison-Hiett Rare Books recently made a “DIY” border crossing for the Chelsea Rare Book Fair. Previously based in the UK, they moved to The Netherlands after the referendum.
On their experience successfully crossing the borders both ways, Marc says he felt “like an Arctic explorer”.
After all, this is uncharted territory. With so many businesses out there, Hairsine says, there is no one-size-fits-all solution – but that does not mean it is time to panic.
“I’m an optimistic person. I love the industry that I’m in and the more stock we have coming in. Once people have done the first few trips they see how it will be possible in the future.”
According to Kevin Hairsine, the top three questions he gets asked by new clients are: “Do I really have to get a receipt for everything I buy?” (yes), “do I have to create a packing list for my vehicle?” (yes) and “do I have to import and export everything from the EU?” (also yes).
Here is Hairsines Customs Clearance’s breakdown of charges facing dealers driving to France to buy antique stock:
• Purchase cost of goods
• Fuel costs plus train or ferry Channel crossing
• Export agent fees (around €90 per commercial invoice)
• Import agent fees (around £125 per commercial invoice)
• Import VAT (5% or 20%)
• Duty (depending on the item and whether Preference can be claimed – if rules of origin are met)