Developments from the US-China Trade War and how the art market is affected

Posted on: September 19, 2019 by

In what at first glance seems like a distant topic for cultural heritage and art law, the ongoing trade war between the US and China has escalated further with clear implications for the art market and many other countries as well.

We have previously covered this topic here and here, when last year the threat of a US tariff on imported Chinese works of art – even if not being imported directly from China – was temporarily warded off. However, this is no longer the case as earlier this month a 15% import tariff was imposed by the US on all Chinese-made artworks and cultural objects, including a vast array of items, such as paintings, sculptures, works on paper, manuscripts and even antiques, meaning objects created more than one hundred years ago.

This measure is problematic on a number of levels. To begin with, if the goal of imposing tariffs on goods in a trade war is to impact the economy of the opposing country, this measure is far from effective when it comes to Chinese-made artworks and cultural objects. The objects to which the new tariff applies will have been produced decades, if not many centuries ago, so that the tariff will have no impact on the economic activity in current day China or on the health of the Chinese balance of trade today.

Additionally, the measure is problematic in that it does not affect the intended target: China. Those affected, in fact, are very far from China in many cases. Considering that most of the Chinese art traded today left China a very long time ago, as is inevitable given China’s stringent export controls on its cultural property, the agents in the market actually affected by this measure are the international art and antiques dealers, auction houses and private or institutional buyers and sellers of Chinese art, meaning people that more often than not will not even be based in China and will therefore have no connection with the intended target of this trade tariff. This problem is compounded by the fact that the tariff is applied regardless of port of origin. This means that if, for example, a London-based art dealer wants to import an antique Chinese painting from his or her London warehouse to the US, the new tariff would still apply.

Whilst the new measure has not yet been taken to court, and there have been no signs that this will happen anytime soon, the tariff continues to apply at the rate of 15% to all Chinese-made artworks indefinitely. It seems that some lucky dealers with particularly good foresight may have managed to import items into the US before the tariff entered into force but on the whole, the situation does raise some questions as to the future of the market for Chinese art in the US.