VAT cut as court rules that video and light art is sculpture

British customs had branded Dan Flavin and Bill Viola works imported by Haunch of Venison gallery as “light fittings”

LONDON. Video and light-based works will no longer attract full VAT and customs duty following a landmark ruling of the VAT and Duties Tribunal after a long-running case over works by Bill Viola and Dan Flavin. Following an appeal lodged by Haunch of Venison gallery in London, the tribunal ruled that the works should be classified as sculptures, which are not liable for customs duties and attract a reduced VAT rate of 5% on their importation to the UK.

The case has echoes of the famous 1928 US court judgment that ruled that Brancusi’s abstract work Bird in Space, imported to New York by dealer Edward Steichen, was a work of art. US customs had classified it as a kitchen utensil, requiring the payment of import duty.

Haunch of Venison had been charged £36,000 duty in 2006 on six works by Viola classified by HM Revenue and Customs as “image projectors [or] photographic enlargers and reducers”, although duty was calculated on their value as works of art. A Flavin work was classified under “chandeliers and electrical ceiling or wall light fittings”. HMRC conceded that they were works of art when installed for viewing, but insisted this was not the case when they were dismantled for transportation.

In its appeal, the gallery presented evidence concerning the artists’ working methods, including the instructions drawn up for buyers, to show that the projectors were integral parts of three-dimensional installations. Tate Modern mounted special installations of work by both artists for the Tribunal to view.

In a decision released in Dec­ember, the Tribunal found in favour of the gallery and ordered HMRC to pay costs. “It stretches the objective characteristics principle too far to say that a work of art is no longer a work of art if it is dismantled for transportation,” said chairman Richard Barlow. Withers LLP, solicitors acting for Haunch of Venison, said US tax authorities had confirmed that they would treat these works as sculpture.

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