New German heritage law is an affront to private collectors

I write in reference to your coverage of the German ministry of culture’s moves to revise cultural heritage protection law (“Baselitz puts German culture minister in the firing line”, published online on 1 September). The intention is to restrict the export of art if it is deemed to be of particularly high quality, significance or value to the country.

Private property that is declared to be German cultural heritage would suffer a dramatic loss in value if it is denied access to the international free market. The restriction on the movement of art would begin from the moment a work is being considered for government “protection”. This regressive revision of existing law would allow for what amounts to expropriation because the minister of culture has categorically ruled out compensating owners at international fair-market prices.    

Germany, one of the wealthiest countries in the world and a nation of both great achievements and terrible 20th-century history, must reflect carefully on its motives for passing legislation that would enable what amounts to government confiscation of property from its rightful owners.

The required application for export permission from Germany and the possible denial of this would penalise owners of cultural goods who have bought them with their own private income. Should collectors with the expertise, foresight and pride in German culture to invest in our cultural production be punished by the risk this law exposes them to? Owners should receive full monetary compensation from the government for the loss in value resulting from restrictions placed upon the free movement of any belongings that are declared to be cultural patrimony.

German politicians go to great effort to lure well-educated professionals and accomplished foreigners into the national workforce. Now our most knowledgeable citizens who possess cultural property are being villainised in a concerted effort to champion the ratification of this backward law.

While the original version of this law was introduced at the time of the Weimar Republic, little has been said about the fact that its most widespread and treacherous application was between 1933 and 1945, when countless citizens had no choice but to renounce possession of cultural goods to pay taxes imposed by the Third Reich or in exchange for permission to emigrate.

The German Democratic Republic in East Germany continued to abuse its citizens with this practice, and the ideologies of that Communist regime, absorbed over 25 years after merging East and West Germany, resonate in this proposed amendment.

The removal of so-called “degenerate art” (entartete Kunst) from public institutions was carried out by a Nazi government that was legally elected in 1933. Will our descendants one day have to reclaim, as we do today, works of art declared by law to be cultural heritage?

The negative effects of the proposed law can already be felt as collectors move their art out of the country to storage facilities abroad. Insurance and transport companies are already experiencing a temporary boom in anticipation of the law going into effect.

Once this happens, there will be fewer loans from outside the country to institutions in Germany for fear of government claims. Most German auction houses have already opened branches in other European countries, and collectors may follow their collections abroad. A small but significant sector of the German economy is being irreparably damaged. The drain of material culture from Germany is already benefiting the art market and exhibitions elsewh ere, as happened between 1933 and 1945.

The repercussions of this clumsy legal amendment will be damaging to the cultural landscape, economy and national image. Germany should be proud of its discerning, internationally respected collectors who keep their art in the country. By compensating its citizens at fair market prices, as the UK and France do, Germany would uphold the constitutional right to private property.

Daniel Blau, Munich