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Archaeology’s losing fight

Author: Alex Bivol Date: Fri, Oct 30 2009 4473 Views
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Bulgaria’s Cultural Heritage Act, meant to finally replace a four-decades-old law, proved to be a compromise that satisfied no one – art collectors said it was too restrictive and many archaeologists said it was too lax.

Its future is now in limbo after Constitutional Court judges ruled that a number of provisions in the law were unconstitutional and had to be amended.
Few would argue that Bulgaria needed a new legislative framework regulating the issue, given the past two decades of large-scale illegal treasure hunting. Strong opposition to some of the law’s provisions has caused long delays to the legislative process.

The law was proposed in 2006 and was sponsored by a group of MPs spearheaded by Nina Chilova, a former culture and tourism minister, and Ognyan Gerdjikov, a former speaker of Parliament. The bill was drafted, the MPs said, using recommendations made by leading luminaries in the archaeological field of study.

From the onset, the bill was criticised as chaotic, blurry and with provisions that were mutually contradictory. At the very first public discussion of the bill, in April 2006, archaeologists and museum directors said that it lacked any coherent direction, did not have clear-cut legal definitions and raised more new questions than it answered.

One of the bill’s provisions that most stirred controversy was that holders of any artwork or antiques should prove their ownership. This provision, central to the law’s intention to regulate the balance between the state’s goal of preserving Bulgaria’s cultural heritage and the private interests of art collectors, would become the defining battleground between the law’s supporters and its detractors.

There are no official statistics on how many private collections of art and relics exist in Bulgaria, nor how extensive each is. Only a few private collections are public knowledge and have been exhibited both in Bulgaria and abroad. Suspicions abound that at least some secret collections were accumulated to launder money and would eventually be sold legally, provided that the law allows for the unrestricted sale of artwork.

One of the law’s shortcomings is that it does not clearly define what constitutes a collection. According to the law’s article 108, "a collection is an aggregate of movable cultural valuable items, which in their entirety and thematic coherence have a scientific and cultural value". Two more articles in the law identify a collector as the holder or owner of such a collection and require collectors to maintain a register and hold certificates for all their artwork.

As critics pointed out, does that mean that an individual with a couple of paintings or half a dozen old coins is a collector? Furthermore, how would one prove ownership of such items, as the law requires? The provision, meant to track down and seize collections that were built through illicit means, would pose equal difficulties for legitimate small-time collectors that accumulated their artwork over time through legal means, but did not have the paperwork to prove this, the law’s detractors said.

The law said that items whose origin collectors could not prove would become state property, while the collectors themselves would be categorised as "holders" of said items. To prove ownership, collectors needed a document from a state institution – such as a court decision or customs declaration proving that the item had been brought into the country. Collectors could not cite an expired statute of limitations to dispense with the requirement to provide proof, the law said.

A bill of amendments was put forward by Bulgaria’s new ruling party Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (abbreviated as GERB in Bulgarian), meant to relax the requirements, allowing any document to suffice as proof, including simple purchase contracts.

Before that amendment could be voted into law, however, the Constitutional Court ruled that such limitations breached the right to own private property, since Bulgaria has not had a system to issue paperwork proving the origin of artwork or antiques, therefore their holders had no way of presenting such documents. The court also ruled that the lawmakers were wrong to dismiss the statute of limitations as a valid exemption from the requirement to provide proof of ownership.

Bulgarian media described the court’s decision as a victory for big collectors, who were seen as the main force lobbying in favour of dropping the proof requirements and allowing a statute of limitations dispensation. Their opponents say that, having been built during a period when any sale of antiques was forbidden, the collections are clearly illegal.

The ruling, announced on September 29, means that the law would have to be amended again to fill the voids created by striking out the provisions declared as unconstitutional, MPs and lawyers said. Four and a half years after a cultural heritage bill was presented, the process does not appear to be over. Like Odysseus’s journey, the law’s future lies in uncertain waters.

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