Artist withdraws works in protest

NEW YORK • Last Friday, the portraits of Elke and Franz Dahlem vanished from a room in Albertinum modern art museum in Dresden, Germany, dedicated to the art of Georg Baselitz.

So did other works from the 1960s and a limewood sculpture of the artist's wife.

In all, nine paintings and a sculpture on long-term loan were withdrawn by Baselitz, to protest legislation proposed by the German government to monitor and limit art exported for sale.

Museum officials replaced the works with a single piece by German artist Thomas Bayrle: a collage made of cardboard, wood and toy cars depicting the euro symbol.

With prices of contemporary art soaring on global markets, Germany's culture minister Monika Gruetters is proposing new laws that would restrict the movement of art treasures.

This comes months after a decision by the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the WestSpiel Casino Group to sell two Andy Warhol silk-screens at an auction at Christie's in New York last November. It earned US$152 million (S$208 million) that went towards building a new state-owned casino in Cologne.

The proposed legislation would give regional authorities the power to designate specific artworks as protected national treasures if they are more than 50 years old and valued at more than €150,000 (S$223,000). Regional boards would have the power to approve or deny export licences for them.

The controls are meant to slow or block the movement of art to other countries for auctions, sales, exhibitions or art fairs. One side effect could be to curb the sale of looted cultural treasures from Syria and Iraq, cutting off trade that is used to finance terror groups including the Islamic State.

"We really want to prevent the export of valuable cultural property without the knowledge of state authorities in Germany," Ms Gruetters told German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The proposal received cautious support from the German Museums Association, which acknowledged flaws in the existing laws.

But gallery owners, dealers, artists and collectors see the restrictions as infringing on their ability to move art and profit from it.

Last week, nearly 300 gallery owners and dealers signed a harshly-worded letter to the culture minister, complaining that elements of the proposal - including new government powers to inspect artworks in galleries or private homes - are reminiscent of a dark past.

"We all thought that the era of arbitrary confiscation by the state, as practised in the Third Reich against Jewish collectors and by the lawless state of East Germany, was forever done," the letter said.

Like Baselitz, German artists Guenther Uecker and Gerhard Richter are considering whether to call in art loans.

In a recent interview with Dresdner Morgenpost, Richter said: "No one has the right to tell me what I do with my images."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2015, with the headline 'Artist withdraws works in protest'. Print Edition | Subscribe