In Bulgaria a new law concerning privately owned cultural property came into effect in April 2009. This concerned both art objects per se as well as dugup archaeological material, and required collectors to register their property with state authorities. The law is supposed to protect Bulgaria's cultural heritage from the treasure hunting plague and organized crime groups dealing with antiques trafficking. The passing of the law met stiff opposition as many interests were involved (we have discussed who has a stake in the trade in Bulgarian dugup antiquities earlier). Many influential people in Bulgaria collect art, and more particularly dug-up antiquities, and presumably are none too keen on revealing where the latter comes from.
The intention of the law was to bring private collections of objects of cultural heritage to light and to legalise the items in them which the owners could document as of legal origin . Current owners had a six months grace period after the law went into effect to register their objects, that period would come to an end on October 10 2009. As part of the registration process, owners would also have to declare origin and method of acquisition of the objects. Anyone failing to register the ownership of a cultural heritage object would be considered a care-taker instead of owner of the object.
Another element regarded as controversial by collectors was that according to this law, the legal sale of movable objects of cultural value could only take place after they had been identified and registered by authorities. The sale had to be announced by a collector by prior written notification sent to the Culture Ministry. If the object was required for the national collections, the ministry would then have seven days to purchase it under the same conditions as the buyer in the proposed deal. If the ministry failed to exercise this right, the object could be freely sold.
According to Bulgarian ombudsman Ginyo Ganev (above), these provisions of the new Law on Cultural Heritage are unconstitutional and he brought the matter before the Constitutional Court. He asserted that the provisions of art. 113 and paragraph 5 of the law violated the sanctity of private property, the rule of law and the right of protection established by the Constitution. Ganev said these requirements restricted the right to free disposal of property and were in violation of both the Bulgarian Constitution and article 1 of the Additional Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights. These arguments repeat objections from members of parliament and non-government organisations when the law was discussed in parliament. "Among the opponents of the law were Dimitar Ivanov, former head of the sixth division of the communist-era State Security who is known to be an art-collector, as well as intellectuals, academics and artists, including Svetlin Rusev, Ivan Marazov, Valeria Fol and Andrey Pantev, Mediapool said".
Members of of Parliament from Bulgaria's ruling GERB party, Daniela Petrova and Pavel Dimitrov, have also proposed amendments of the Cultural Heritage Act, attempting to create more lenient requirements for the registration of privately-owned antiques and archaeological items.
Leading Bulgarian archaeologists have declared themselves against the proposed changes: "By rescinding the requirement to have an official document proving the origin of cultural items, their ownership will now be certified with random pieces of paperwork. This is disrespect," said Margarita Vaklinova, Director of the Bulgarian Archaeological Institute and Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, during a special press conference Thursday. If the dispute succeeds, the Bulgarian state will lose the control over its cultural heritage. Vaklinova said the archaeologists did not know which specialists participated in the commission appointed by Culture Minister, Vezhdi Rashidov, to draft the changes in the Cultural Heritage Act.
On Sept. 29, 2009 the Bulgarian Constitutional Court handed down a decision concerning the case raised by Ganev. The decision (in Bulgarian)is available here, or a Bulgarian numismatic forum here. The court:
"DECIDES: 1. Declared unconstitutional § 5, para. 2 and 3 of the Transitional and Final Provisions of the Law on Cultural Heritage (promulgated, SG. 19 of 2009).The first referred to the registration issue. The second (para 113) to the sale, the sale of all cultural property still has to be notified to the state, and offered first to the Ministry for purchase for the national collections. It is notable that the discussion about registration (§ 5) really hinges on the obligation imposed by the new law to provide material not required by the old laws under which private collections had been created. It is specifically noted in this ruling that articles obtained illegally are not affected by this ruling. They are still held illegally. The ruling refers to the non-imposition of a requirement of additional documentation of previously legally obtained items.
2. Rejected the request for a declaration of unconstitutionality of art. 113, para. 1, 2 and 3 of the Law on Cultural Heritage".
It is amusing to observe the reaction of US collectors to this. I'll deal with this in a later post (see above) as the situation develops.
There are other issues here, the total inability of Bulgaria to construct a system of coherent laws concerning cultural property was noted in the ruling. But then, should the protection of the cultural heritage be wholly reliant on restrictive laws? Collectors all over the world, including in Bulgaria, say they are "protecting the heritage" (meaning by this objects taken FROM the archaeological record). Part however of curation is documenting where items are and where they have come from. this is the basis of museum accession registers. If private collectors wish to be see as avocational curators of the world's cultural heritage, then they have to accept the responsibilities that go with that. Bulgarian collectors in opposing this legislation show that they are not willing to accept those responsibilities. Like many collectors of portable antiquities everywhere.
Rene Beekman, ‘Constitutional court asked to rule on Law on Cultural Heritage’, Sophia Echo, Jul 30 2009.
'Bulgarian Archaeologists Blast Changes in Cultural Heritage Act', September 3, 2009.
Dessislava Popova, 'Amnesty Rewards Bulgaria`s Shady Collectors ', Balkan Insight, 30 June 06.
Photo: Collector's rights champion Ginyo Ganev, by Nadezhda Chipeva