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International trade in fine art


The international trade of fine art is most precisely defined as the trade across nations of unique, non-reproducible works by an artist. The art trade contradicts typical international trade models since it is a culturally significant good. It is not treated by consumers the same way any other commodity would because of the aesthetic value that is unique to each piece. Despite existing as a finite physical piece, unique art is still considered intellectual property. This sparks the debate as to whether art exports should be restricted for nationalistic and cultural reasons, or liberalized for the sake of a healthier international market.

The trade commodities included in the definition of “visual art” include the following: painting, drawing, sculpture in various materials, printmaking, photography, maps, performance art, installation art, mail art, assemblage art, textile arts, fashion design, video art, digital art, and product design. These works are non-functional, emotional, social, political, traditional, and cultural statements, and in comparison to other goods, are not greatly affected by commercial-sector constraints. Though visual art is a physical, hand-made good, it is often culturally rooted and created for aesthetic appeal. Therefore, art is considered intellectual property.

The 4-digit Standard International Trade Classification (SITC) classifies “Works of Art, Collectors Pieces and Antiques” under category 8960, which includes paintings, drawings, pastels, original sculptures, original prints, stamps, and antiques over 100 years old. This is the only SITC category that consists of unique, non-reproducible art, which is typically thought of as “fine” art. The 4-digit harmonized commodity description and coding system, otherwise known as the harmonized system (HS) code for “fine” art is 9701, which is classified as "Paintings, Drawings and Pastels, Executed Entirely By Hand."


Highlights of Official Treatments of Imported Paintings and Sculpture in the USA, 1789-1865
Year Duty (%) Context of change, exemptions
1789 5
1790 10 A general increase in duties was prompted by revenue requirements
1800 12.5 Upward revisions were made to “defray expenses in relation to the Barbary States.”
1812 30 Duties were more than doubled to finance the war with Britain
1816 15 Imports of “any society incorporated for philosophical or literary purposes or for the encouragement of the fine arts” were placed on the free list.
1824 15 Protectionist pressures generated advances in duties, overall, but duties on imported art were not changed.
1832 0 Tariff Act of 1832: All paintings and sculpture were placed on the free list.
1841–1842 20 Overall increase in rates was driven by needs of an empty Treasury. Though art duties were re-imposed, the “productions of American artists residing abroad” were added to the free list, along with imports of nonprofit cultural institutions.
1846 0 All paintings entered free when imported as an object of taste and not of merchandise.
1861 10 The requirements of the Civil War finance elevated overall rates.
Top World Importers in 2010
Country Trade Value
United States 6,201,785,637
United Kingdom 4,214,309,059
Switzerland 1,656,723,908
China, Hong Kong SAR 782,230,445
France 562,109,395
Other Reporters 2,881,571,576
Total Import 16,298,730,020
Top World Exporters in 2010
Country Trade Value
United States 6,344,171,701
United Kingdom 5,178,104,954
Switzerland 1,229,904,687
France 959,773,572
Germany 860,247,165
Other Reporters 2,332,793,409
Total Export 16,974,995,488
US Imports for 2010
Country In 1,000 Dollars
Switzerland 1,506,184
United Kingdom 1,352,289
France 464,676
Germany 169,477
Hong Kong 156,220
Korea 137,229
Belgium 119,128
Netherlands 92,760
Italy 91,026
Japan 90,403
Singapore 88,400
Luxembourg 84,147
Canada 67,124
Austria 42,508
Spain 39,760
Subtotal 4,501,332
All Other 259,030
Total 4,760,362
US Exports for 2010
Country In 1,000 Dollars
France 1,543,510
United Kingdom 705,964
Italy 416,948
Germany 326,409
Spain 183,255
Netherlands 171,125
Switzerland 164,926
Belgium 133,960
China 67,193
Austria 63,497
Norway 46,164
Japan 43,445
Mexico 42,433
Canada 30,494
Hong Kong 26,086
Subtotal 3,965,309
All Other 213,808
Total 4,179,117

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