„Close to mental confusion“ – a German court on Michael Müller-Karpe’s private crusade

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August 5th, 2010 – Five mediocre bronze bowls, which were bought by an antiquities dealer based in Frankfurt, have alarmed Dr. Michael Müller-Karpe self-appointed crusader in the name of cultural property protection. He talked up the relatively unimportant objects as cultural property of national importance from the central Anatolian realm of Phrygia, which even the complete layman is able to associate with the name of Gordion and the Gordian knot. In order to win his battle, Müller-Karpe assumes the right to trample on German right. Recently, a judge found hard words about this kind of behavior.

The German Arbeitskreis Kunsthandel (task force art trade) recently published the following press report on a lawsuit a task force member had won against the federal state of Hesse.

Case History and Summary of a verdict concerning protection of cultural property made by the administrative court Frankfurt am Main from June 2nd, 2010, reference number 5 K 1082/10.F

Administrative litigation by an art dealer against the federal state of Hesse represented by the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and the Arts.

Case history
In 2008, the police confiscated a number of ancient bronze bowls from a conservator. Some of the objects – five small vessels and bowls – belonged to an antiquities dealer from Frankfurt who had purchased them from a private collector. The latter had legally acquired the bronzes in the 1980s. To get the pieces back, the dealer had to endure several lawsuits. Even when the Frankfurt district court ascertained that there was no violation of the Act on the Return of Cultural Property and the insinuation of receiving of stolen goods was without justification he did not get the objects back. Pending the decision, they had been handed to the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum Mainz (RGMZ), to the archaeologist Michael Müller-Karpe. At the instigation of an official of the Hessian Ministry of Higher Education, Research and the Arts a so-called confiscation order was issued to the effect that the museum was not obliged to hand over the objects.

At the same time, the archaeologist claimed damages of 17 million Euros in total for himself and for the Zentralmuseum in Mainz for defamation. As a result of these extraordinary claims the antiquities dealer was forced to look for legal assistance again. The procedures are outlined in: Ein Museumsangestellter sieht rot. Kunst und Auktionen no. 11, p. 42, Munich, Mai 2010, p. 42.

The verdict
In the beginning of June 2010, at the Frankfurt district court, a lawsuit took place which the antiquities dealer again won. The defendant was the federal state of Hesse. The verdict clearly acknowledged and stated that the Hessian Ministry’s and Müller-Karpe’s actions were “grossly and evidently illegal”. With regard to the damages claim the judge “questions the fitness for service of that employee” (i.e. Michael Müller-Karpe) and calls his methods „close to mental confusion”.

Beyond that, serious and justified allegations were made against the state of Hesse and the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum. After all, they cooperated in illegally confiscating the objects and handed them over to third parties, though their right to do so was clearly in question. Their actions had ramifications also for public liability.

The background
For years Michael Müller-Karpe has been accusing the antiquities trade of dealing in stolen and smuggled goods. Despite having been proved wrong on several occasions (as in the case above) he continues with his groundless attacks.

German legislation demands an official authorization for the import of cultural property which is listed by the exporting country as highly significant. Plus, it imposes rigid documentation requirements on the trade including detailed information and proof of the cultural property’s origin, name and address of the seller and means of acquisition. Against that background, Müller-Karpe’s continuous claim, that the German laws were “friendly to dealers in stolen goods”, have no basis.

With his attack on a reliable art dealer, Müller Karpe has gone outside the law. The verdict of the Frankfurt district court speaks for itself. The archaeologist has therefore disqualified himself as an official expert and commentator on issues of cultural property. The German art trade and collectors hope that the irrational and resentment-based crusades of the archaeologist in Mainz against collecting and dealing in ancient art will now cease.

The ramifications
The antiquities dealer was represented by the Frankfurt lawyer Markus Menzendorff. When asked about his estimation of the legal dispute he replied: “One man all alone against law and order! Single-handedly, Michael Müller-Karpe wants to turn proprietary right upside down. He regards himself as an investigator and representative of the state in the same person and therewith ignores the verdicts of German courts. Legislation only recently pronounced against a prohibition of the art trade. Hence, the independent actions of the museum’s staff member are without any legal basis.

In the meantime, Menzendorff brought a charge and took further legal measures.