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German Parliament Passes Controversial Law to Protect National Heritage

The upper house of the German parliament has passed a controversial law that, according to dealers, will enforce the strictest import and export regulations on cultural objects in the world, Catherine Hickley of the Art Newspaper reports.

The Cultural Property Protection Law was originally proposed as a way to prevent illegal trafficking of artworks and antiquities, as previously reported. It stipulates that a license is required to export cultural objects older than seventy-five years and worth $300,000 or more. A license will be granted only if permission is given from authorities in the sixteen German states. Any archaeological artifacts, except for coins, will need to have an export license from the country of origin.

The law has been widely opposed in the arts community. Critics are concerned that the bill will damage the art market, cause collectors to withdraw loans to German institutions, and collapse the antiquities trade, which has been declining since the law was first announced. After it passed in parliament’s lower house on June 23, collectors and dealers united to lobby against the legislature. A petition created “for the preservation of private collecting” had forty-eight thousand signatures as of July 4. Eleven former directors of German institutions, including Herwig Guratzsch, who previously served as director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Leipzig, and Christian von Holst, former director of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, wrote an open letter to parliament. They said that collectors, dealers, and institutions have been preemptively removing works from the country, afraid that the law would be passed. The letter reads: “The exodus is already underway; the damage is already enormous and cannot be reversed.”

Culture minister Monika Grütters, who championed the bill, said, “Germany spends billions in tax money to promote culture. It is therefore a matter of course that we should protect and keep our own cultural heritage—including the few cultural objects that are deemed to have national value.” She has cited the recent destruction of heritage sites in Iraq and Syria and the looting of archaeological artifacts in order to fund terrorism as reasons why the strict trade regulations are necessary.