“I’m leaving”: British antique dealers affected by Brexit


It’s a modest life, but over the past 20 years, Ruth Butterworth has managed to turn her passion for vintage French home decor into a profitable livelihood, traveling all over France. flea market flea markets and antique fairs for items for resale in the UK.

But since Brexit pulled the UK out of the EU’s single market in January, Butterworth – like many antique ‘white vans’ in Britain – has found herself on the wrong side of a complex trade border that ‘she didn’t either. energy or appetite to overcome.

“Brexit just finished it for me, I’m going out of business,” she said as she looked after customers browsing her white collections earthenware pottery and benetiers – giant clams – on his grounds at the Ardingly antiques fair last month in West Sussex, near the south coast of England.

It’s a heartbreaking decision for Butterworth, 56, but one that many other traders at the Ardingly Fair say are also making as they grapple with the need for customs declarations, tax payments on the added value and all other formalities now required. British traders with the EU.

“For many little boys, the ‘white van’ trade with Europe is dead,” said Paul Ridges, who has a shop in Swanage, Dorset, and who has been importing antiques and vintage items from France for nearly 40 years.

He explains how, before Brexit, he could take his van for an overnight crossing to France to visit a trade fair in Le Mans, “deposit $ 10,000 in four hours” by buying French coins, then be back in the Kingdom. – United at 3 pm crossing the following day, completing the trip in 24 hours.

“Now I have to get an invoice for everything in my vehicle, and if I type in a French flea market I could buy 150 items – from a coffee maker to a Louis XVI table. And since this is a cash trade, many French traders just don’t want to give a receipt, ”he explained.

The Ardingly Antiques Fair in West Sussex © Charlie Bibby / FT

Matters are further complicated by the fact that antiques that are over 100 years old are duty free and valued at 5 percent VAT, while “vintage” items that are less than a century old enjoy full rates. 20% and even some import duties.

“The government’s advice is to ‘get a shipping agent,’ but it may take five to seven days to sort the documents at both ends, and by the time all fees and taxes are paid, the business earns cash. have simply disappeared. ,” he added.

The impact of the new barriers to the occasional antique trade has also been felt in the opposite direction, with the number of EU traders at this year’s Ardingly fair dropping 65%, according to Will Thomas, managing director. of International Antiques & Collectors Fairs, which organizes sales events across the UK.

An unknown proportion of that reduction was due to Covid-19 restrictions, Thomas added, hoping that many EU traders would return. But the mood among the vendors at the Ardingly fair is pessimistic.

Mattias Vachet, 49, a French antique furniture dealer from Avignon who has lived in Chertsey, Surrey since 2012 with his British wife, said he was packing his bags and returning home to France, in part because the demand for his services was drying up.

Antiquarian Mattias Vachet

Mattias Vachet says he plans to return to France, having lived in the UK since 2012 © Charlie Bibby / FT

” I move back. I just can’t be bothered by Brexit, ”he said,“ I had big plans to start a wholesale business center for French dealers in the UK. Originally I had 20 people interested, now I only have five.

Thomas of the IACF said his business is helping some sellers branch out online, opening a new auction website, although for traders used to making deals with wads of cash and a handshake, the rules of online sales guaranteeing customers the legal right to return goods after 30 days is sometimes difficult.

For other dealers, such as Keith and Jean Thompson who shop for their Rams Head Antiques business in Wolsingham, County Durham, Brexit has caused export rather than import issues, as customers from the EU purchasing from their UK website are affected by unforeseen charges and taxes on delivery.

Keith Thompson at the Ardingly Antiques Fair

Keith Thompson: “Before, our trade was around 30% with the EU. [Now] it’s about zero ‘© Charlie Bibby / FT

“Don’t ask me about Brexit,” said Thompson between haggling with a merchant of three Louis-Philippe gilt-framed mirrors, eventually settling on £ 2,000 in cash and producing a thick wad of banknotes. £ 20 from a satchel around her waist. .

“Our trade was around 30% with the EU – customers in France, Italy and Germany – but since the restrictions took effect it has fallen to practically zero,” he said.

Still, not everyone at Ardingly was giving up. For other dealers, such as Cambridgeshire-based Kevin Hairsine, Brexit has been an opportunity, allowing him to open a customs and advisory service charging customers £ 180 per month for advice.

Kevin Hairsine at the Ardingly antiques fair

Kevin Hairsine, center, has set up a customs and advisory service for traders © Charlie Bibby / FT

Hairsine, who studied to qualify for the UK Customs Academy online, is preparing to offer customs clearance services to customers trying to negotiate new regulations. These are expected to become more complex when the UK introduces full customs controls later this year, which the UK government has unilaterally delayed for a year to give UK businesses more time to adjust.

He said some taxidermy items should be allowed under the CITES convention for endangered species, for example, while wood products are subject to different controls depending on the category to which they belong.

“There are subtleties,” he explained. “A French Louis XIV wooden table will not need to go through the Forestry Commission wood checks, but an old tree trunk that has been turned into a table, which still has bark, will. . ”

A few stalls further down, another independent trader, Henry Vaughan, is also looking to cash in and works with his brother, who lives in France, to provide a full delivery service for antique dealers to shop in French markets and deliver to a hub in France for subsequent delivery.

Between offering someone a prize on an old French tin tub, Vaughan said he thought his new business would be popular, but still assumed many small dealers wouldn’t care. “It used to take five dollars to get that bath back, now it’s £ 40 and a lot of headaches. Multiply that over hundreds of items and for many resellers that is too much. It devastated a lot of people. “

Henry Vaughan and his stall at the Ardingly antiques fair

Henry Vaughan works with his brother, who lives in France, to provide a full delivery service © Charlie Bibby / FT

Nonetheless, Kathryn Singer, director of strategy for the British Association of Antiquarians, said she hoped crafty traders on both sides of the Channel would learn to adapt.

“Brexit has definitely created a lot of new documents and protocols, and we are working with the government to see where these can be reduced. But the dealers are a pretty stubborn breed and they tend to get it right, ”she said.

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