Antiquities dealers in Germany are fighting to head off a new law they fear could deal a death blow to a trade already in terminal decline.
The cultural property protection law is due to go through the upper chamber of the German parliament on 8 July. If passed, it will bring in the world’s strictest import and export restrictions on cultural objects, says Vincent Geerling, the chairman of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art. His association is one of 20 in the newly formed Action Alliance for Cultural Property Protection (AACPP), which is lobbying the German parliament to reject the bill. The association argues, among other things, that the new law will “put an end to the trade in non-European art objects”.
Germany’s culture minister, Monika Grütters, was determined to get the bill passed before parliament breaks for the summer, while the AACPP hoped at least to delay it. On 23 June, the lower house, or Bundestag, passed the bill with some last-minute amendments. The bill is now scheduled to go to the Bundesrat, or upper house on 8 July, the final of parliamentary business before the summer break. If approved, it would take effect immediately.
The primary aims of the law are to stop illegal trafficking in looted antiquities and to ensure that works of art with national significance do not leave Germany. It has been warmly greeted by those whose heritage has suffered most from antiquities theft and smuggling. The ambassadors of 12 countries, including China, Egypt and Mexico, gathered in Berlin on 9 May to show their support for Grütters.
Antiquities dealers argue that the law would hit the legal trade too. The main bones of contention are requirements for export and import licences for cultural objects above a certain value, even within the European Union. The rules for archaeological assets, defined as objects found in the soil or water, are particularly stringent. The law would demand an export licence from the country of origin for any item offered for sale.
“Supposing you are offered a marble Roman head from a Swiss family collection,” says Günter Puhze, a Freiburg-based dealer in antiquities. “How could you get an export licence from the country of origin without knowing exactly where it was dug up, maybe decades ago? Would you have to go to all the states that were once part of the Roman Empire?”
More controversial yet is a requirement that any cultural goods above a certain value and age can be exported only with permission from yet-to-be established authorities in Germany’s 16 federal states. Puhze says one of his most valued clients has moved his entire antiquities collection to London in case the law is passed and he is left unable to sell abroad.
Traders in Asian art have also begun to question their future in Germany. The Cologne auction house Van Ham is considering moving out of Asian art. At Nagel Auktionen in Stuttgart, Michael Trautmann, a Chinese art expert, says the firm’s Asian art business may move to Austria if the law comes into force unamended.
Meanwhile, the AACPP has written to members of the Bundesrat warning them about the potential hidden costs to the states of the additional bureaucracy and petitioning them to reject the bill.
The antiquities trade in Germany has been in decline in recent years, with many dealers shutting up shop altogether in the face of increasing regulation or retirement. Few young dealers have entered the trade in the country, which Geerling estimates to be worth only around €15m a year.