Why You Should Worry About Germany’s Radical New Cultural Protection Laws

Collectors have compared it to expropriation.

The German government’s planned amendment to the country’s cultural protection legislation has been derided by art professionals as potentially damaging the art trade in Germany. But how will it effect the international art market?

The law seeks to tighten export regulations so that all artworks, even those traveling within the EU, require a government-issued export permit if the works are older than 70 years and valued over €300,000 ($326,000).

In Germany, gallerists, collectors, artists, auction houses, and even art fair managers have fiercely opposed the government’s plans, arguing that the law will introduce further obstacles into the already lagging German art market; some even compared the suggested amendment to expropriation.

Interestingly, outside of Germany the effects of this explosive law barely seem to have registered. artnet News contacted the US branches of six German-owned galleries for comment: Two replied, and only one was prepared to comment.

German Culture Commissioner Monika Grütters (2009) Photo: Christof Rieken

German Culture Minister Monika Grütters has been heavily criticized by art professionals in Germany.
Photo: monika-gruetters.de

Even New York’s Neue Museum, which exclusively shows works that will be most affected by the new law due to their dates and price point, weren’t prepared to comment on the topic.

The reality is that the law will inevitably have a global impact. Germany is the largest economy in Europe and many of the world’s leading artists, galleries, and museums, as well as a host of collectors and auction houses are based in the country.

If it passes, the law will seriously complicate the flow of artworks and cultural objects in and out of the country. A primary concern over the law is the opaque definition of what constitutes so-called German cultural heritage. For example, in January 2015 Germany’s culture minister Monika Grütters unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the sale of two Warhol paintings at Christie’s London.

But if Warhol is classified as German cultural heritage simply because the works are in the collection of a German Federal State, isn’t every artwork subject to cultural protection? It’s precisely this lack of clarity that’s making collectors very nervous.

This also means, however, that international museums may have a much harder time getting works by German artists from private collections for exhibitions such as the Guggenheim’s popular ZERO group survey in 2014.

Gallerist Gisela Capitan said the law will seriously hinder the art trade. Photo: artnet Magazine

Gallerist Gisela Capitain said the law will seriously hinder the art trade.
Photo: artnet Magazine

“[The amendment] makes collectors feel insecure and prevents them from lending works to museum exhibitions or buying works in Germany,” Gisela Capitain, partner in the Capitain Petzel gallery in Berlin which also operates under the name Petzel in New York, told artnet News in an email.

And this, despite assurances from culture minister Grütters, who insisted in an open letter published on the culture ministry’s website in September 2015 that the law will only effect “Very few unique, culturally self asserting and identity forming artworks” amounting to “a negligibly small part of the overall artistic and cultural heritage in Germany.”

Capitain said “[The amendment] drives collectors to export important works from Germany to other countries and keeping them there.”

A prominent Berlin-based collector who spoke to artnet New on condition of anonymity isn’t convinced by Grütters’s hollow assurances either, and has already transferred his collection to the bordering Netherlands. “What the government is doing equates to expropriation,” he said.

The second debate of the bill is scheduled to take place in April. If the German parliament leaves the bill unchanged, it will proceed to a vote the next time parliament meets.

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