Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Germany: "it's like an antiquities laundry"

Last week's news story that more than 4000 antiquities will be trucked back to Italy from Switzerland ended by noting that Germany is now a major centre of antiquities.

Germany ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in November 2007. The reason for the action was given in a press release issued after the German Cabinet had made the appropriate decision in February 2006.
Minister of State for Cultural Affairs Bernd Neumann presented the cabinet with a draft bill that will implement in German law the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

The cabinet approved the bill at its meeting today. This legislation is among the most important projects on the government's agenda in the framework of a 100-day program of action in the cultural affairs arena.

This concludes an unusually long ratification process on the part of the German government. Bernd Neumann noted: "It is very important to me to be able to present this long overdue bill that will finally harmonize German laws on the protection of cultural property with international standards. There is an urgent need to curb trade in stolen cultural property, such as we have seen recently in Iraq in particular, by means of coordinated measures on the part of the international community."

The purpose of the bill is to help fight illegal trade in cultural property at the international level. With it Germany will be able to guarantee compliance with cultural property protection laws in other countries who are parties to the convention, in particular with regard to returning illicitly obtained cultural property as well as preventing illicit imports and exports thereof. Under the bill Germany also assumes the obligation to do everything it can to protect its own cultural property against illegal digging, theft, and illicit exports.
While this sounded like good news, notes of caution were also sounded. A helpful overview was presented by Andrew Curry, "German Law Stirs Concern Illegal Artifacts Will Be Easier to Sell", Science Vol. 315. no. 5818 (16 March 2007) pp. 1479 - 1480. He interviewed one of the critics of the new law, Michael Müller-Karpe of the Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Mainz.

Curry reported the concerns:
Whereas the United States and many of the other 112 signatories to the convention restrict or prohibit trade in broad categories of artifacts, the German law passed last Friday requires countries to publish lists of specific items they consider valuable to their cultural heritage. Only those items will be protected under German law, which means trade in undocumented artifacts, such as those looted from archaeological sites, will be difficult to restrict. “This is a bad signal,” says Michael Mueller-Karpe, an archaeologist at the Roman-German Central Museum in Mainz. “It tells the world that whatever isn’t published isn’t worth protecting.”
The main concern in 2007 was that Germany would take over from Switzerland as the country where antiquities were handled.
German archaeologists fear that the country’s loopholes could make it a destination where dealers turn stolen property into legal merchandise that can then be traded worldwide. Until now, objects with no proof of origin have been assumed stolen. But under the new law, if they’re not listed, they can be presumed legal and potentially sold with Germany as their country of origin—making it easier to move them to the United States or elsewhere. “It’s like an antiquities laundry,” says Mueller-Karpe.
One of the critics of the scope of Germany's ratification was Eckhard Laufer, a police officer who has been part of a unit looking at material from illicit excavations:
“We’ll have to wait and see, but I’m afraid it’s totally inadequate,” Laufer says. “The new law won’t make any improvement, and the situation can’t get much worse than it is right now.”
Laufer is now the target of criticisms by those involved in the numismatic trade (see Paul Barford's "Raubgrabung and the European Trade Reaction").

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