WYWH: You’ve Been Served – “Gerhard Richter Painting” and German Cultural Heritage Protection Law

By Elizabeth Weber, Esq.*

Screen shot 2015-04-17 at 2.41.44 PMOn February 3, 2016, the “You’ve Been Served” dinner and a movie event was hosted by the Brooklyn Law School Art Law Association. Attendees included attorneys, artists, art dealers, and students. The film screened, Gerhard Richter Painting, is a documentary that provides a glimpse, deliberately and slowly, into the life and artistic processes of visionary German artist Gerhard Richter. In the film, director Corina Belz highlights Richter’s creative process and allows viewers to watch Richter work on art in real-time. Interspersed in the film are clips from Richter’s youth, in which he discusses his views on art and life, which may or may not have changed for the artist over the course of his long and prolific life. The film attempts to provide viewers an intimate view of Richter’s past and his present: his escape from Eastern Germany at the age of 28, his trove of family photos that have an ambivalent effect on the artist, who wonders, “Who is this woman?” as he points to an image of his mother and wonders “Should I throw all of these away?” when trying to organize the photo trove in chronological order. In the film, Richter observed how American audiences tend to be more direct in commenting on his work, with one observer calling his gray series the English term for “scheisse.”

Following the screening of the  film, a partner in Sullivan & Worcester’s Litigation Department in Boston, Nicholas O’Donnell, led a discussion about German cultural heritage law. Mr. O’Donnell, who is the editor of the firm’s Art Law Report blog and an attorney working on a number of art law matters involving Germany – including the Restitution claim for the Guelph Treasure – discussed the hotly contested 2015-2016 German Cultural Heritage Protection Law. The first draft of this legislation proposed that all objects of national importance older than 50 years and valued at €150,000 or more must be granted an export license by the German government to leave German soil. A subsequent draft revision amended the value threshold, raising it from €150,000 to €300,000 and increasing the object’s age from 50 to 70 years. Additionally, the revision states that works of living artists may qualify as objects of national importance only with the artist’s permission. Having written about the proposed revisions already, O’Donnell described the law as archaic in a time when the art market is expanding beyond geographical national borders and becoming part of the larger global economy.

The legislation sparked outrage throughout the art world. Some artists, like Richter, and other art market experts condemned the act, with some experts portending the destruction of the German art market should the act come to pass. Mr. O’Donnell noted that other artists, including Georg Baselitz, went so far as to withdraw loaned works from German museums in protest of the law.

It was noted that other EU countries have export limitations on cultural valuables, including France and Italy, among others, and that Germany may be using these countries’ laws and overarching EU law as justification for its Cultural Heritage Protection Law. Indeed, the European Economic Community, one of the three founding pillars of the European Union, issued a regulation in 1993 that set uniform export controls for EU member countries. This regulation, titled “On the Export of Cultural Goods,” stated that “[t]he export of cultural goods outside the customs territory of the Community shall be subject to the presentation of an export license.” Accordingly, Germany’s Cultural Heritage Protection Law narrowed the geographic scope of the EU regulation by decreasing the acceptable export zone from the entire EU to Germany only.

A press release issued by the German Press and Information Office of the Federal Government acknowledged the EEC regulation, stating that “[s]ince 1993, EU law has required permits to export relevant cultural property outside the EU, for example to major art markets in Switzerland and the U.S.” The press release further indicates that “the German law sets more generous terms” than the aforementioned EU law.

Additionally, German authorities have characterized the law as an attempt to keep illegally-imported artifacts, especially those sold by ISIS to finance terrorist regimes, from being imported into and subsequently purchased and sold on German soil. Professor Monika Grütters, Germany’s Minister of State for Culture, stated that “[i]n view of the barbaric destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East and many other areas of crisis and civil war, this move was long overdue, demanded by ethics and morals and by our identity as a nation of culture.”

During the Q&A session with Mr. O’Donnell, the discussion included possible loopholes within the  law, what permits for below market pricing and selling goods on the illicit black market. In addition, O’Donnell commented on the ramifications of the law vis-a-vis restitution claims that are currently pending against German institutions and individuals. Namely, would the law disallow the export of objects that qualify as “national treasure” after a restitution claimant succeeds in proving that property was looted from the family during the Nazi-era? It’s possible – if the draft German Cultural Heritage Protection Law passes this year, all works produced before 1946 (70 years before 2016) would be categorized as artifacts possibly restricted from export .

Cultural heritage issues are not exclusive to antiquities and remain a pervasive issue for contemporary artists. Different interests come into play between the governments seeking to protect and preserve their cultural identity and those who disseminate art to the international community. Although it is vitally important to protect cultural objects, governments must weigh the benefits derived from restricting the export of cultural patrimony against the curtailment of artists’ and art dealers’ rights. Namely, governments should take into account the far-reaching effects of cultural patrimony laws before restricting the flow of goods into the market to avoid the negative backlash that naturally follows such regulations.


Center for Art Law would like to thank Tess Bonoli and all the members of the Brooklyn Law School Art Law Association for their generosity and enthusiasm for the program. Many thanks to all who attended this event, with special thanks to Nicholas O’Donnell for his illuminating discussion of German cultural heritage issues.

About the Author: Elizabeth Weber is a lawyer living in Brooklyn, NY.  She graduated from the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where she received her certificate in Intellectual Property Law and served as an active member of the Art Law Society and the Journal of Technology Law and Policy. She is the Spring 2016 Postgraduate Fellow with Center for Art Law.

Sources:

Disclaimer: Reading “Wish You Were Here” a/k/a “WYWH” articles is no substitute to attending art law events, trials and programs. This and all http://www.itsartlaw.com articles are for educational purposes only. Readers should not construe or rely on any comment or statement in this article as legal advice. In case of legal questions, readers should seek a consultation with an attorney.

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