Immediately Squanders Market Opportunities Created by Brexit

On a historic day in the European Union, Germany quietly enacted the revised Cultural Property Protection Law (Kulturgutschutzgesetz) that has sparked much controversy in recent months. On the very day that the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union raises myriad questions about the effect on London in particular as a world center of the art market (see here for the terrific first take by our friends at Boodle Hatfield in London), Germany ironically has passed a law that will prevent it from stepping into any of the likely market void left by Britain's EU exit. While Germany is not alone in cultural property protection laws of this sort, it is a silly and unnecessary regulation that will undercut the German art market—as vocally proclaimed by German art market players themselves. In the art world, it was a regressive day on the eastern side of the Atlantic and a huge opportunity lost for Germany.

We have covered the law as it progressed, so just to recap:

Last year, Minister of Culture Monika Grütters announced an initial proposal to amend Germany’s cultural property protection law, or Kulturgutschutzgesetz. Like many European countries, Germany has provisions under which a piece of property cannot leave the country without the Ministry’s permission. The initial proposal in July would have tightened that even further, and applied to objects as young as 50 years old and worth at least €150,000—and not necessarily only German work. After unanimous criticism, the Ministry of Culture re-submitted a somewhat watered-down version in September. The revision would add a requirement for a permit to other EU countries, for paintings older than 70 years and valued at more than €300,000. When the revised draft was released, the Ministry stressed the law’s inapplicability to contemporary work, and to any living artist (no doubt a nod to Gerhard Richter and Georg Baselitz, both of whom had declared their intention to take their work out of their home country if the law progressed).

As usual, the passage was accompanied by gleeful pronouncements from the Ministry of its accomplishment. Reaction in the ENglish speaking press has been muted with the larger news of the Brexit on the table today. German dPA acknowledged the "massive" criticism of the law by artists, collectors, and dealers. The Sueddeutsche Zeitung offered its usual sharp analysis, noting the possible issues created by the open definition of "national culturally significant."

Laws like these simply do not belong in the 21st century however. To use an example (and to deflect concern that we are just picking on Germany), there was recently a row about the sale in London of an artifact that had supposedly belonged to the legendary Joan of Arc. The buyer was French, who returned with it to France. The dustup was over whether England’s cultural property export law would or could have prevented that.

But who does that help? Joan of Arc is a French icon, who fought the English in France. The 100 Years War is equally significant to England, naturally. How does either of the 14th century combatants claim a superior right to cultural significance? It requires a mindset more appropriate to that century than this.

As if that were not enough, the Brexit vote only underscores Germany’s lost opportunity. UK citizens’ ability to work within the EU will now be complicated. Tariffs and trade agreement will have to be renegotiated. In other words, the free movement of people and property from England to the Continent has changed, to say the least. Germany, the largest economy in Europe and home to collectors, dealers, and professionals as sophisticated as any, stood to step into the void. This law puts an end to that possibility.