Art News & Views

A few tools to protect the French culture

By Franck Barthelemy

The French cultural heritage is tremendous. And there is a reason for it : the state has put together a series of laws to protect it. Public institutions have been given very powerful rights to acquire artworks on the market, to control and stop exports if needed. Let's review how a museum can enrich its collections.

First and foremost, the museum can purchase on the market. It simply uses its funds to acquire a piece of art from a private party. This is a common practise but unfortunately limited by the budget of the institution. The museum has similarly the capacity to buy at a public auction, like any other legal entity. The museum can also place orders with artists. The reputation of the museum's collection will drive the price discussion with the artist. Some museums, well established, known and under the limelight might get the artworks for free or very little money. There was a very typical French practise in the 19th and early 20th century, Les Salons, some official exhibitions where the artists would display works hoping they could be noticed by public and private buyers. Since 2003, the museum can acquire an artwork with the sponsorship of a donor. The donor will get a significant tax break (up to 50%) on the amount given to the museum. Collectors also have the possibility to donate artworks during their lifetime or at their death. It is quite common though the museums cannot control the quality of the artworks given. The minor works will be sold on the market and the cash use to purchase more significant artworks.

Since 1921, a very powerful right has been given to the government, through the voice of the ministry of culture, the pre-emption right at a public auction. Every time there is a public auction, the organizers have the obligation to send a catalogue to the ministry of culture. In case there is a work of national interest on the catalogue, that the State would like to keep in its collections or in the country, the State can pre-empt the artwork. In other words, the State can decide to suspend the sale for 15 days. The ministry would usually use the period to do more research about the artwork and evaluate its interest vis à vis the national heritage. If it is considered a national treasure, the state will buy the work from the seller at the hammer price. If not, the last bidder will get the artwork.

Since 1941, the customs can stop any artwork of high value from being exported and request the ministry of culture to evaluate it. If the work is worth being part of the national collections; the State will pre-empt the artwork and acquire it from the owner, usually at the price quoted on the customs papers. This is considered an emergency procedure, rarely used. The customs can also confiscate artworks that are illegally exported. The exporter will rarely be able to get any compensation.

The museum can be donated by or inherit from individuals amounts of cash. The institution can invest the money and use the interest to acquire new works. Thought the law is pretty generous in terms of tax break, it is rarely used.

The museum can be given artworks that were stolen by the Nazis during the war and never claimed by their owners or descendants. There are specific and strict inventories for these artworks.

One of the most powerful laws defines the 'dation', a donation to the State in order to pay inheritance taxes. André Malraux and De Gaulle passed the law in December 1968. Upon an agreement between the finance ministry and the culture ministry, any individual who inherits arts can pay the inheritance taxes in kind i.e. in artworks. The artworks must be of national historical interest. A commission made of experts from the ministry of finance (2) and the ministry culture (2), the chairman is appointed by the prime minister. Since 1983, individual can also pay the wealth tax the same way. As a consequence, some very famous paintings entered public museums : L'astronome by Vermeer, Portrait de Diderot by Fragonard, L'Origine du monde by Courbet, various paintings by Braque, Bacon, Matisse, Calder or Rothko. Many books have joined the national libraries too, manuscripts by Claude Levi-Strauss, Montesquieu, Jules Verne, Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir or Jean Paul Sartre. This is without counting furniture and artefacts such as the Rethel or the Boscoreale treasures. Some stone collections reached the museums of natural history such as the Katia and Maurice Krafft collection of volcanology or the minerals collection of Roger Caillois. Some archives of high historical value such as the Louis de Broglie's archives, the Hiller's archives. Some prototypes reached the sciences museums such as the Bull first computer.

The most famous 'dation' is probably the Picasso one that makes the collection of the Picasso museum in Paris : 203 paintings, 29 installations, 88 ceramics, 1500 drawings, 1600 prints and several manuscripts.

All these different schemes helped the country to have more than 10,000 museums and collections open to the public. Their role in preserving the national heritage is obvious. But they also support the new artists, allowing them to get funds for projects and giving them exposure. Over 52 million visitors entered the premises of one of these institutions. A great initiative was recently launched : the night of the museums, every year in May. Most of the museums throughout the country are open to the public for 1 night, free of charge. In one night, over 1.5 million visitors enjoy the collections. And the success is growing every year! Is India going to be soon on this track?


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art etc. news & views is a monthly magazine published from India in order to promote art and culture. It intends to raise awareness about art all around India and the world. The magazine covers art exhibitions, auction highlights, market trends, art happenings besides Antique, Collectibles, Fashion, Jewellery, Vintage, Furniture, Film, Music and Culture.