We have focused recently on the proposed legislation in Germany to make its cultural heritage export laws stricter, of which we have been critical here and in recent discussions. As ill-advised as we consider the proposed German law to be, to be fair, it is not unique. Its chief flaw is in seeking a solution (a stricter law) in pursuit of a problem.

Word came out today from England of an example that highlights the challenges of this restrictive view. The UK has imposed an export ban on a 1928-29 sculpture by Alberto Giacometti—a Swiss artist.

“This Giacometti sculpture is not only a stunning example of his work but it also heavily influenced some [of] our greatest artists,” culture minister Ed Vaizey said in a statement published on the UK government's website. “It is important that Femme is kept in the country so we can better understand and enjoy this pivotal period in modern British art.”

The announcement is on the heels of a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Art and Cultural Objects, which was entitled “UK risks losing £2m modern art sculpture,” and which stated tha “Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has placed a temporary export bar on Femme by Alberto Giacometti to try to save the plaster sculpture for the nation.” Further:

The RCEWA made their recommendation on the grounds that it was so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune, it was of outstanding aesthetic importance; and of outstanding significance for the study of abstraction, Surrealism, the history of plaster sculpture, Giacometti’s links with British modernism and the wider relationship between British and continental European (particularly Parisian) modernism in the 1930s.

This kind of possessive nationalism does not withstand serious scrutiny. Giacometti was, as the report acknowledges, “known as one of the most important and sought after sculptors of the last century.” That is not a British, or even a Swiss, qualification. It is a piece of moveable personal property.

Anyone harboring hope that the stricter German law would not matter much would do well to consider this example.