Niche Trade: Art and antiques after Brexit

Wed 13 Mar 2024
Posted by: Benjamin Roche

The global trade of objects over 100 years old – i.e. antiques – is dominated by the UK.

Britain is the world’s top exporter, as US$556m in antiques flow out of the country each year according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC).

Imports are dominated, perhaps unsurprisingly, by the world’s richest nation: the US.

To learn more about the industry, we spoke to Kevin Hairsine, founder of Hairsines, an antiques dealer with an arm specialising in customs clearance for the art, antique and vintage sectors that offers “fast, friendly and stress-free customs declarations for those trading with the EU”.

Launched in 2020, the customs clearance side of Hairsines – an Institute of Export International Trade (IOE&IT) business member – has swelled its client list to over 300 “and rising”.

Antiques post-Brexit

“After Brexit, I wanted to continue to buy my stock in Europe, which is what I’ve always done – France, Belgium, Italy, that sort of thing,” Hairsine explains.

“I thought about taking some training because, initially, the costs of importing with the number of people I buy from was going to be very expensive. We buy from multiple consigners, and it was proving to be very costly.

“I trained in customs clearance so that I could do it for myself. Then other antiques dealers heard about it and started saying ‘Well, we’d be interested’. So, I took on further training to level 4 in Advanced Customs Compliance, and out of that we [now] specifically manage import and export documents for antique, art and vintage dealers who travel to Europe.”

The majority of clients, he explains, go through the Dover and Folkestone Ports, using roll-on roll-off ships or trains to transport their cargo, and include individual antique and vintage dealers as well as art galleries and auction houses.

Hairsines also offers a support service for clients, helping them to understand the changes in regulation since Brexit, and the process for crossing the border between the UK and the EU.

In the years following Brexit, Hairsine says, many were taken by surprise at new documentation requirements.

“We have clients who had never bought goods in Europe before Brexit and just started afterwards, and we’ve even worked with dealers who were trading for 20 or 30 years saying: ‘It was never this complicated before the Single Market!’

"So, we’re sort of educating them on what it actually means to trade in the post-Brexit environment, really.”


But what makes art and antiques a unique market compared to others? Unpredictability, Hairsine suggests.

“If you’re trading in other markets, you know what you’re buying. If you import T-shirts, car parts, food – even with all the complexity of phytosanitary [regulations] – you generally know what you’re bringing in.

“In this industry, you don’t buy a product until you’ve seen it. Our clients visit antique fairs, markets, shops and look at the goods, then make the purchase. That means we can get notification last minute of when they want to bring goods into the UK; they’re literally forming the packing list on the ground.”

Hairsine explains that the majority of clients go to Europe with an empty vehicle and come back full of items. Packing lists can contain one receipt or – in one case he cites – as many as fifty. One client came back with as many as thirty different commodity codes, he adds.

He suggested that some emerging and apparent solutions for these situations, such as AI or other customs software, do not compare to a proper understanding of these invoices.

“They’re not like a standard set invoice. You’ve got one type of supplier who’ll do you a lovely printed invoice, every single bit of information on there that you need. Then other times you’ve got a handwritten note in French that’s got to be translated into German or whatever.”

What Hairsines offers, he says, is knowledge and flexibility.

His own experience of crossing the border and buying means he is equipped to help others. By getting a client to send an image of an item, he can understand what it is and find the commodity code for that specific item if needed.

What’s new?

Turning to recent trends, Hairsine notes that it is only recently that he is starting to see UK exports increasing. Over the last two years, increasing complexity in moving goods cross-border appears to have limited the numbers of antique dealers looking to sell to Europe.

“We’re only just starting to see them increasing this year. It’s complicated, expensive and the biggest thing Brexit has caused is increased costs. There are agent fees on both sides of the border, import VAT for those who can’t reclaim it, duty if the item is not under preference.

“On top of that, shipping costs have risen considerably. Individual transporters who were just popping over and coming back again now face increased costs.

“We’re seeing a balance emerging now between some antique dealers who used to drive over all the time now using shippers, and those who used to ship getting bigger vans and just doing it themselves.”