Bundestag approves the amendment of the German Cultural Property Protection Act

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by Ursula Kampmann
translated by Annika Backe

June 30, 2016 – On Thursday, June 23, 2016, the 2nd and the 3rd reading of the amendment bill of the German Cultural Property Protection Act took place. Those who have watched the discussion via the internet mainly saw empty benches facing the speakers who voiced their opinions unchallenged. What a non-politician may consider a discussion, though, did not take place.

Screenshot from the live broadcasting of the amendment of the Cultural Property Protection Act.

Monika Grütters, Minister of State for Culture and Media, was the first to speak. She deemed it important to highlight what she considers to be improvements because “the impression was created that they (the collectors, author’s note) will not be able anymore to dispose freely of their property.” She therefore stressed that, for the first time ever, clear-cut criteria were now available as to which objects were to be listed in the register of cultural property of national significance. Furthermore, the expert committees that “consisted of representatives from museums, archives, science, trade, and collectors ought to be strengthened”. This would make the process much more transparent. In the future, when buying a work of art, collectors would benefit from “the commercial art trade being obliged to make all reasonable efforts to check the origin and the provenance of an object.”
Concluding her speech, Mrs. Grütters struck with a veritable sideswipe at her critics. “I am grateful that we have reached a broad consensus of all those who want to protect the cultural heritage against illicit trafficking and illegal export in the public interest.” She therewith implied that her critics were just not interested in the protection of cultural property. So she was pleased about the visit of twelve ambassadors representing Bolivia, China, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Mexico, Mali, Peru, and Sudan, which would have expressed their thanks to Germany for this new law. The critical reader may ask himself how much this gratitude for a German law is worth, coming from twelve nations that cannot be seen as models of democracy or of cultural property protection themselves.

The next speaker was Sigrid Hupach of “Die Linke” (“The Left”). She criticized the lack of cooperation between the parties in regards of the law: “I honestly think that it is an imposition to send us a 97 page amendment bill on Tuesday at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, on which the first committees to be consulted are expected to vote already on Wednesday, starting at 8 am. I do not address this issue because we are not willing to work in the evening but because I consider this to be a disregard for the parliamentary work of the opposition; besides, this procedure is not appropriate considering the importance of the protection of cultural property.”
Other than that, Mrs. Hupach supported the government’s plans, although she wanted to see due diligence in commercial marketing of cultural property tightened significantly.

She was followed by the Chairman of the Committee on Cultural and Media Affairs, Siegmund Ehrmann of the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany). As for the objects to be protected, he remarked: “Neither the market value nor the age of an object per se is the decisive criterion. Of relevance is what is particular, unique, identity-establishing. In this sense, it is always about outstanding individual items that justify the protective effect.”
Mr. Ehrmann believes the law to be a good law. Even if all those who have followed the trials conducted against collectors and dealers over the last years, may well think his summary either cynical or naive: “Nothing is as bad as it looks.”

Ulle Schauws of Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen (Alliance ’90 / The Greens) was next. She criticized “the endless diffuse communication of the Federal Government, in conjunction with a crisis management that has led to further distrust”. She, too, would have liked more strict requirements for the trade, presumably because she does not know the latest studies on the value range of the illicit trade. Although a scientific study has long reduced the invented billions to a few million in the single digit range, she still refers to an annual turnover of 6 to 8 million euros, thus repeating an allegation that had been proven wrong already years ago: that the art trade would be the third biggest source of income for organized crime. She wanted no responsibility for government authorities and therefore welcomed the abolition of the “previously applicable unsuitable list principle”.

The issue of coins was addressed by Ansgar Heveling of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union): “The draft also acknowledges the diversity of different art trade sectors. For example, special provisions for coins have been incorporated into the amendment bill. They are not considered archaeological artefacts if they come in large numbers and do not really increase the archaeological knowledge.”

A very special glimpse into the customs of the art trade was provided by Susanne Mittag of the SPD: “So far, any handwritten piece of paper did do, with a remark that the relevant object stemmed from the attic or a private collection – it is hard to believe that there are so many attics and private collections –, and the flea market was frequently referred to as well; the latter apparently was a place from which many of these antiquities came. 4% had no records at all. Yet they were on the market all the same.”
“In this context, it is vital that we, in the parliamentary process, have put the value threshold for archaeological heritage … to zero. It was not the first time that objects have been smashed, and afterwards they became cheaper.”
The quality of this contribution is revealed by the reference to the all-too-familiar case of the Nebra Sky Disc, which caused the SPD and the Greens to burst into laughter. The fact that the return of the object was also possible on the grounds of the old Property Protection Act did not irritate the speaker for a second. On the contrary, she demanded that “in the context of the planned evaluation” the protective effect was to be observed “and the law, if necessary, toughened”. 

The debate was concluded by Dr Astrid Freudenstein of the CSU, who stated that the same key issues had been under discussion already in 1955, and by Martin Dörmann of the SPD, who stressed that great accommodations had been made to both collectors and art dealers, yet without sacrificing the core objectives of the law.

With these statements, the one-hour-time allotted for the debate had expired. The law was voted on. “In the second consideration, the draft bill has now been adopted, with the votes of the coalition factions and the opposition abstaining.” 

Now it is up to the Bundesrat to approve. This is scheduled for July 8, 2016. This is the last possible date before the parliamentary summer recess. With the consent of the Bundesrat, the law will come into force.

As soon as the Bundesrat has given his approval, we will assess it carefully and summarize the changes that will affect the trade and the collectors. 

By the way, the compliance costs will be reviewed in two years’ time. And after five years, there will be an evaluation report, which can become the grounds on which to review the law. We are very curious to see if, this time, the trade and the collectors will also be asked to contribute to writing the evaluation report.

You can read the German protocol of the session here. 

Here you will find the latest draft of the new law.

You may also watch a video of the session. Then you can see for yourself how few politicians it actually takes to make a new law.