This is no angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin debate. For tax purposes, classifying the pieces as light fixtures means that any Flavin work imported into the European Union is subject to full VAT, which rose to 20% on January 1; classified as sculpture, the pieces would be subject to only 5% VAT.
Art critic Laura Cumming has said about Flavin’s art, "You wonder how it is possible that so much pleasure could emit from such a dismal source: the cold fluorescent tubes of strip lighting." But in its ruling, the Commission said: "It is not the installation that constitutes a ‘work of art' but the result of the operations (the light effect) carried out by it."
Hmmm… if the only things installed in a room are lights, and the only reason people go into the room is to look at the effect of those lights … ??? I wonder, is it "the result of the operations" or the purpose of the operations that constitutes a work of art ?
This is not the first time this has come up as a tax issue. The Guardian cites one famous precedent for the Commission's decision; “In 1926 the American collector and photographer Edward Steichen bought a bronze version of [Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s] tall slender Bird In Space, and attempted to import it to the US. Since it had neither head, feet, nor feathers, US customs refused to accept it as a zero-rated work of art, and instead classified it as ‘a manufacture of metal ... held dutiable at 40%’.”
After paying the $600 tax, Steichen and Brancusi took the matter to court – their legal fees paid by the millionaire collector Peggy Guggenheim. The decision was overturned, the judge ruling that "while some difficulty might be encountered in associating it with a bird, it is nevertheless pleasing to look at and highly ornamental". Steichen got his money back.
Take note, EC.