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© German Embassy London/Flickr
© German Embassy London/Flickr
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Cultural Property Protection Law Strikes Controversy in Germany

Picture of Lily Cichanowicz
Updated: 11 July 2016
Within the context of modern, liberal society, most would agree that the value at which we hold cultural objects and the lengths we are willing to go to protect cultural expression is a measure of the greatness of that nation. With the passage of Cultural Property Protection Law, Germans are currently realizing that what it means to protect and preserve art and cultural heritage varies depending upon whom one asks.

On July 8, 2016, Germany’s parliament passed the controversial new legislation to protect its culture, or so its proponents claim. The law itself is meant to more heavily regulate the import and export of items of culture significance including artwork and historical artifacts. Over 48,000 citizens signed a petition opposing this law.

While the idea of protecting these items sounds great in theory, the Cultural Property Protection Law will impose major constraints upon those who are actually doing most of the trading, collecting, and preserving of these items: private collectors, art dealers, museum personnel, and artists themselves. These groups feel the law threatens their rights of ownership over these items, and in some ways it does.

Under the Cultural Property Protection Law, cultural items can only be exported from Germany with legal permission and in some cases formal licensing based on the age of the object and its monetary value. At the very least, opponents of the law feel that a public database ought to be created outlining the specific regulations applied to various items under the new law in order to ensure transparency. As it stands, traders and collectors are left at the mercy of legislator’s discretion in granting permission for export of trade of such highly valuable items.

Germany's Minister of Culture, Monika Grütters | © German Embassy London/Flickr
Germany’s Minister of Culture, Monika Grütters | © German Embassy London/Flickr

Germany’s Minister of Culture Monika Grütters, does offer some compelling reasons for instating these regulations. She claims that this crusade to protect items of cultural heritage is being made in accordance with Germany’s duty to, ‘to live up to its responsibilities for mankind’s cultural heritage – nationally and internationally.’ Namely, the legislation is intended to protect the export of items deemed to have national cultural significant from the state of Germany. Furthermore, with items of enormous value getting destroyed every day in countries like Syria and Iraq, Grütters believes that those surviving cultural gems that wind up in Germany are being smuggled and illegally traded.

It is possible that the former portion of her justification has already backfired under the law as the former director of Stuttgart’s Staatsgalerie, Christian Von Holst states, ‘the exodus is already underway, the damage is already enormous and cannot be reversed.’ Holst is part of a coalition of 11 former museum directors who have spoken out in opposition to the legislation. Indeed, many collectors are already relocating their prized items abroad to protect them from these strict regulations. This raises an important question: does the state of Germany have the right to regulate these transactions?

Either way, the impacts of this new law on Berlin’s thriving art scene are expected to be significant. Berlin-based art dealer Jan Wentrup predicted that the passage of a law like this could erode the city’s thriving, international art market as more people decide to conduct activities abroad instead. It would seem that only time will tell.