London's auction houses have reacted with dismay to news that the European Commission has finalised proposals for a levy on the sale of contemporary artwork to be applied throughout the EU.
The adoption of the proposal, which is likely to be put forward at the Council of Ministers' next meeting, would mean contemporary European painters, sculptors and photographers were entitled to between two and four per cent of the sale price every time their artwork was resold, for up to 70 years after their death.
Artists are currently entitled to resale rights, referred to in the art world as "droits de suite", in most European countries. In the UK, Ireland, Austria and the Netherlands, however, artists receive nothing when their work changes hands.
Christie's, the auctioneers, said the scheme amounted to little more than a "social security levy" for artists. Anthony Browne, a director, said: "If we believe that artists are a very important species, which I doubt, then maybe we should find a special way to look after them. But this is not the way." Mr Browne believes the levy will drive the contemporary art market out of Europe to the auctioneers of New York, where no such tax exists. "If the Commission wants New York to take over from Paris and London as the centre of contemporary art, this legislation is the way to do it," he said.
Mr Browne said the Commission's claim that the levy was effectively a copyright fee was "a distortion of the facts". He said: "We already have a system of copyright in this country so that artists' works can't be reproduced. This is entirely different."
A spokeswoman for the European Commission said that large auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's would have nothing to worry about, because the higher the price of the artwork, the lower the percentage of the levy. Paintings worth less than Ecu1000 (pounds 824) would have no levy applied at all, while artwork costing more than Ecu250,000 (pounds 210,000) would be covered by a 2 per cent levy. Levies of 3 and 4 per cent would be paid on artwork costing between Ecu1000 and Ecu250,000.
Rachel Duffield, chief executive of the Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS) welcomed yesterday's decision at the European Parliament in Strasbourg: "Fine artists are different to other creators, such as musicians, because they sell their work often for a very low price and then, later, huge amounts of money are made for everybody but the artist." DACS said that Sotheby's had added 5 per cent to their buyers' commission in 1992 and claimed the auction house was being hypocritical by opposing a levy that benefited artists.
The National Artists Association said it supported a move towards resale rights, although some artists shared the auction houses' concern that the new legislation might drive the contemporary art market out of Europe.
A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said the Government could see no benefit in introducing the levy.