The Senate protects furniture ensembles and regulates the sale of government monuments

28/1/11 – Heritage – France – The bill just voted by the Senate after the first hearing, and which was supposed to originally concern the sale and transfer of historical monuments belonging to the state, added several measures which, if definitely adopted, would represent a significant step forward in protecting heritage furnishings. The projected law provides for the following :

>It will be possible to list historic furniture ensembles as historical monuments, thus resulting in the classification of each of the elements separately and prohibiting them from being separated or dispersed [1].

>It will be mandatory to maintain the objects in situ, “when listed furniture objects or a historic furniture ensemble listed as a historical monument are tied by historic or artistic links to a building listed as a historical monument which forms a coherent ensemble of quality with it and whose preservation as a whole is in the public interest”. This mandatory condition could be pronounced at the same time as the listing or later.

Both of these measures, which will also apply to works owned by private individuals with their consent, have been requested for many years by heritage supporters and we ourselves had stated the same thoughts in an editorial published on this site last 20 november ! We therefore rejoice at the news that the Senate has adopted these proposals when only recently many were still saying this was a lost cause.

The other portion of the new law attempts to impose limits for the sale and transfer of historical monuments belonging to the state. This project is both a regression, when compared to the Commission Rémond (see article in French) since it had set a strict limit to the number of monuments which could be transferred based on what might be considered their minor importance, but also a definite sign of progress since it now includes all of the monuments belonging to the government, and not just those under the Ministry of Culture. Until now, only France Domaines, that is the Ministry of Finances, decided what to sell without ever taking into account the heritage interest or historical importance of the buildings.
We should also recall, furthermore, that in 2009 the parliament, with the government’s blessing, had voted an article in the finance law which allowed the selling off, with no supervision, of historical monuments belonging to the state (see news item of 28/11/09, in French), a measure which had been censured by the Conseil constitutionnel (see news item of 6/1/10) for a technical legality (it was in fact a legislative rider). We can thus consider that this bill, put forth by the Senators Jacques Legendre and Françoise Ferat, is a step in the right direction attempting to make sense of the current chaos in the matter. We should notice however that in the presentation of the motives, it is clearly stipulated that “theoretically, nothing” is excluded.

A proposal has therefore been made to set up a new commission, the “Haut conseil du patrimoine”, comparable to the Commission Rémond in its objectives, which will be to determine on a continuous basis (and not just once and forever) which monuments owned by the state can be “transferred”. This commission will have extended powers since it will also determine “whether to make transfers at no cost”, will identify “those monuments having a cultural vocation” and will issue “instructions concerning their cultural use”. Finally, let us remark that it will express its opinion on “projects of declassification from the public domain, for the purpose of selling those monuments transferred at no cost”. In other words, these monuments which were transferred for free to regional communities may later be sold to the private sector but only after approval by the Haut conseil. The fate of the monuments sold by the state to a regional entity [2] is on the other hand not at all clear since it appears that it will then be possible for said community to resell it to whomever it wishes without any restraint.
The Haut conseil du patrimoine will also be informed of any “project for a long-term administrative lease equal to or longer than thirty years concerning one of its listed or registered historical monuments” and may decide to issue an opinion (which does not express whether it is for or against) when at least one third of its members requests to do so. This is a measure inspired by the current affair of the Hôtel de la Marine. The following are excluded : “partial transfers, of objects or parts of buildings, in order to avoid dismembering historical monuments.” This should therefore forbid, at least we hope so, the sale of the stables at the Palais du Rhin by the Ministry of Culture.

We will not be able to evaluate the second portion of this new law until we know how the Haut conseil du patrimoine is established. Its composition is not clearly defined [3] but a decree by the Conseil d’Etat should definitely stipulate it. Unfortunately, no criteria have been defined for specifying which major monuments should not be transferred under any conditions.
Finally, we must hope that the Ministry of Culture will express its full support for this bill which, for the first time in many, many years, offers significant gains in protecting our heritage [4], at least as concerns furniture ensembles, and that the Assemblée Nationale, or lower house, always much less concerned than the Senate by these questions, will not upset the initiative set by their fellow parliamentarians.

Didier Rykner, vendredi 28 janvier 2011


[1] Unless authorized by the administrative officials who pronounced the listing, which, we suppose, would amount to a declassification of the ensemble.

[2] This applies to monuments not concerned by a cultural project.

[3] It is made up of “an equal number of parliamentarians, notably members of commissions in charge of culture at the Parliament, of representatives from administrative departments in charge of managing government property, historical monuments and regional entities as well as qualified persons selected by the Minister in charge of historical monuments based on their knowledge of history, architecture and art history”.

[4] In a preamble to this text, a new article has been added to the Heritage code which stipulates notably that “The conservation and enhancement of the cultural heritage, in its historical, archeological, architectural, urban and landscape aspects are in the public interest”, that “the public communities [should] integrate cultural heritage in their urban and transformation policies and initiatives […] in order to ensure their protection and transmit them to future generations” and that “When a heritage element or a part of the territory is acknowledged as a world heritage site […] the protection of its exceptional universal value as well as the management of that asset and the surrounding area which ensure this goal should be taken into consideration in the urbanization plans of this or these communities in question”. We readily approve this part of the text which however is really just states an intention of what should be done rather than a concrete measure to be applied.

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