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What is art?

03 March 2009 / Pierre Valentin , Daniel Mcclean
Issue: 4196 / Categories: Comment & Analysis , VAT
PIERRE VALENTIN and DANIEL MCcLEAN discuss the importance of a recent tribunal decision relating to importing works of contemporary art


  • Are dismantled installations sculptures?
  • Ambivalence of EU custom law.
  • Importance of objective characteristics.
  • Decision for the taxpayer company.

Trials in which the meaning of art is in dispute are rare as both legislatures and courts are understandably reluctant to make aesthetic judgments.

A notable exception is the well-known trial of Brancusi v United States [1928] TD 43063 US Customs Court Third Division 26 November 1928 in which Brancusi successfully established before the US customs court that his abstract bronze ‘Bird in Flight’ (1925) was a sculpture and could therefore be imported into the United States free from import duties.

Eighty years later in December 2008 the VAT and Duties Tribunal (London) has held that video installations by Bill Viola and a light sculpture by Dan Flavin could be...

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