Looted in Mosul, sold in Munich? Germany's clampdown on illicit trade

Dalje 30 July 2015

Fears that Germany has become a trade hub for looted antiquities from the Middle East has prompted the government to put forward a draft law on artistic imports. Critics argue it does not go far enough to prevent illicit trade.

The headlines sent shockwaves through the German art world. "Looted art: A race against time," weekly newspaper Die Zeit proclaimed, while the conservative daily Die Welt declared Germany "a trade hub for illegal art."

An in-depth documentary produced by public broadcaster ARD even claimed to have traced the financing of terrorist organizations including the Islamic State to high-profile auction houses in Munich.

"It's pretty simple: exporting looted art from conflict-ridden countries such as Syria and Iraq would not be possible if it wasn't for the solid infrastructure that the European art market provides," says Ulli Seegers, an art historian at the University of Dusseldorf.

As a result, Culture Minister Monika Gruetters has put forward legislation to better regulate the import of ancient artefacts from conflict-ridden countries, and she plans to present the draft law to Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet next month.

"In the future anyone wishing to import historical artefacts into Germany will need a valid export permit for every individual item from the country of origin, and this permit will have to be presented," said Gruetters at a recent conference on illicit excavations.

"It is ridiculous that we in Germany spare no costs and effort to designate the provenance of every egg before it makes it to the breakfast table, while a complete lack of transparency reigns in the way we deal with cultural assets worth millions," she added.

The legislation has been a long time coming. With the ratification of a UNESCO Convention in 2007, Germany assumed responsibility to combat illicit trade in cultural artefacts, but a subsequent restitution law that aimed to return works to their countries of origin is widely perceived to have failed.

The Federal Criminal Police Office's (BKA) efforts to crack down on illicit trade have been spearheaded by Sylvelie Klarfeld, who leads a team of three part-time investigators. This pales in comparison to Italy's Carabinieri, for example, which fields hundreds of investigators to combat art and antiquities crimes.

Critics argue that the current bill - which also includes rules about cultural exports and transfer of ownership within the country - does not go far enough to protect looted art, and that it may even facilitate trade in illegal artefacts already circulating in Germany.

"What the draft law does is effectively legalize all looted artefacts that are already on German soil when it comes into effect, which will most likely be early 2016," says Michael Mueller-Karpe, an antiquities expert at the RGZM Research Institute for Archeology.

Mueller-Karpe argues that the laxness of Gruetters' draft law is a reflection of the government's reluctance to place the German art market - which already ranks lower than the United States and Britain in terms of turnover - at a competitive disadvantage.

"The antiques lobby is very powerful indeed," he says. "I would argue that antiques traders are quite pleased with the legislation, as it effectively gives them a license to buy and sell looted antiquities already in the country."

Despite Mueller-Karpe's assertion, the legislation has drawn the ire of art dealers, who argue that the new requirements are not aligned with the realities of the market.

"The new regulations concerning the import of artworks places an unreasonable burden on art dealers," says Karl-Sax Feddersen of the German Art Dealers Association. "Some countries don't even have the relevant authorities to provide the paperwork proving that a piece has been legally exported."

Feddersen is quick to brush aside assertions that Germany has become a central hub for looted artefacts from the Middle East, arguing that the legal landscapes in countries such as Switzerland and Britain provide a much better infrastructure for their sale.

"I think the idea that Germany has become some kind of hub for looted art is overblown," says Feddersen. "I very much doubt mainstream art traders in Germany would consider handling goods stolen from a museum in Mosul."

"If these pieces are indeed flooding the country, it is on a black-market level that certainly won't be fazed by incoming legislation," he adds.

The debate surrounding illegal antiquities from war-torn countries is likely to continue in the coming weeks, with Gruetters to present the bill to Merkel's cabinet in August.

The controversy has particular relevance in light of Germany's complicated and highly fraught relationship with looted artworks. The discovery in 2012 of a cache of 1,200 works amassed by a Nazi-era art dealer under dubious circumstances exposed an underlit chapter of German history.

"As Germans we have a special responsibility considering the looting of art between 1933 and 1945," says Mueller-Karpe, referring to the theft of what was referred to as "degenerate art" in Nazi Germany.

"The outcome of this [law] is of the utmost importance as future generations will have to bear the consequences."
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