The Federal Supreme Court recently ordered an art collector to pay back import taxes of around CHF 11 million plus interest on arrears of around 2.5 million. However, it became really expensive for the art collector when the tax investigators of the cantonal tax office examined the files seized by customs in detail.
Background was that the import into Switzerland was carried out by a gallery that had a permit to use the Postponed VAT Accounting Procedure. Apparently incorrectly, because as the court confirmed in its ruling 2C_219/2018 of 27 April 2020, only the person who has the economic power of disposal over the imported goods immediately after the import is entitled to act as importer of records. The fact that the gallery had the power of disposal over the works was denied in the present case and as a result the art collector, who actually had the power of disposal at the time in question and therefore should have acted as the importer of records, was obliged to pay the import taxes.
Under the postponed VAT accounting procedure, the importer does not pay the import tax to the Swiss Federal Customs Authorities, but declares it on a separate form as part of the corresponding quarterly VAT statement and at the same time claims it as input tax (which is why no money flows). The application of the postponed VAT accounting procedure is subject to various cumulative requirements, including that the licensee is liable to pay tax in Switzerland.
In the case under review, the art collector was not registered for VAT in Switzerland, for which reason alone he was not authorized to use the postponed VAT accounting procedure and was generally not entitled to deduct input tax.
This case shows, on the one hand, the importance of careful (and in this case also truthful) documentation and internal organization of certain processes related to VAT. With the necessary compliance structures and an ICS (Internal Control System) for VAT, the risks of incorrect application of a legal procedure or systemic wrong decisions could be reduced. After all, it does not always have to be criminal energy that leads to considerable VAT offsets. It is sufficient, for example, that the legitimate importer of records is accidentally not recorded in order to have serious consequences. In this context, this case illustrates the central importance of constant monitoring of the factors that distinguish hobby from self-employment for direct tax purposes.
On the other hand, this case vividly illustrates that authorities do not only fulfill their own tasks. In this case, the interdepartmental cooperation between the customs administration, the VAT authorities and the cantonal tax office had far-reaching consequences. By way of administrative assistance, the effectiveness of individual tax audits can be extended to other tax areas of a tax subject. An isolated examination of individual tax types without a view of the entire tax situation, as could be achieved with a comprehensive ICS - be it at the level of an individual or a company - can therefore lead to a spiral of tax consequences or reclassifications and offsets, as in the present case. It is therefore all the more important to assess relevant transactions holistically.