UPDATED: Norway’s finance minister was promising late Friday to free 16 paintings by one of the country’s most prominent artists from the clutches of customs officers at Norway’s gateway airport (OSL Gardermoen). They held up the arrival of the paintings by contemporary artist Bjarne Melgaard, claiming they didn’t qualify as artwork and that Melgaard would have to pay NOK 1.3 million in taxes and fees to get them released.
“I think this is completely crazy, that some conservative forces can describe what’s art and what’s not,” Melgaard told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday morning. Especially, according to Melgaard, when the customs officers “have no competence” in the art field.
NRK’s report on morning radio broadcasts was spreading like wildfire, as local media snatched up another apparent example of Norway’s strict rules regarding taxes and fees and how they’re interpreted. In this case, the country’s customs authority (Tolletaten) determined that Melgaard’s pictures, which were in the process of being shipped to a gallery in Oslo, could not be classified as artwork even though Melgaard is an internationally acclaimed artist whose work has been purchased by Norway’s own National Museum and even gone on display at Oslo’s famed Munch Museum. His work is known to stir controversy, but few would deny he’s an artist.
Thorbjørn Jacobsen, chief of the customs operation at Oslo’s main airport, initially told NRK that he couldn’t comment on individual cases. He claimed, however, that his officers at OSL were merely following the rules when they held back Melgaard’s paintings on the basis they did not qualify for exemption from Norway’s MVA (VAT).
“The general public’s definition of what constitutes art does not always mesh with the definition of art in the (state) regulations,” Jacobsen told NRK. “In order for a painting to be defined as a work of art, it must have been created by the hand of the artist,” Jacobsen said.
His officers determined that Melgaard’s paintings were not entirely produced by his own hand because the canvas is a digital portrayal (an impression on the canvas that’s part of the motif of the oil painting) and can therefore not be seen as a painting according to the tariff rules. “We are following the rules, but are not rigid because of that,” Jacobsen said.
Melgaard’s lawyer, Mads Schjølberg, claims the paintings are indeed created by Melgaard’s hand and should not be subject to Norway’s VAT. He successfully fought a similar customs case earlier this year involving another artist whose artwork, made up of neon lights, was classified as a lamp. “That was a matter of principle with a tax claim of NOK 2,500,” Schjølberg told NRK. The Melgaard case involves much larger sums and presents a problem because “the customs authorities are invoking a much narrower understanding of what constitutes art than there is room for in the current rules.”
For Gard Eiklid, who owns the art gallery in Oslo that’s waiting to display Melgaard’s paintings, the customs authorities’ tax demand is nothing short of a crisis. “I have spent massive amounts of money to get these paintings to Norway,” said Eiklid of Galleri Rod Bianco. Even though Melgaard is the one facing the tax bill, Eiklid’s gallery would ultimately have to pay for it “and for me this is a crisis,” Eiklid told NRK. “We can’t pay NOK 1.3 million, and we will go to court if we must.”
That may not be necessary, after Finance Minister Siv Jensen stepped in Friday afternoon and said she would simply change the rules. “This case that NRK broadcast today clearly shows that the current rules can have an unreasonable outcome,” Jensen told NRK. She said that artworks must continue to be free of VAT claims, and that it was time for the existing rules to be updated.
“I have therefore asked the customs authorities to resolve this case tied to Bjarne Melgaard as quickly as possible,” Jensen said. She said she hopes the paintings could be released to Melgaard and the Oslo gallery within a few days, as soon as the altered rules take effect, and that no other artists will have their art held up by regulations that are imprecise.