Switzerland to implement 1970 UNESCO Convention legislation on 1st June

Switzerland’s is known for its pivotal presence in the underground network that moves illicitly excavated artefacts from country to country


Legislation comes into effect in Switzerland this month to enable it to implement the 1970 Unesco Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. Switzerland ratified the treaty in 2003. The convention imposes a duty on States to prevent the acquisition and importation of illicitly gained artefacts, to return certain categories of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their country of origin, and to maintain cultural resources in situ. It covers the control on the import of illicitly traded cultural property into Switzerland, and its transit, export and repatriation.

One of the new Swiss law’s stipulations, which go far beyond the requirements of the convention, is that all art dealers must demand written proof of identity and right to ownership from anyone selling them “cultural property”, defined by the law as objects of historical, cultural or artistic importance. The laws are particularly severe because Switzerland has earned a reputation for being a transit centre for stolen art, where works could be stored and then exported once their owners obtained good title to them after five years.

Switzerland’s pivotal role in the underground network that moves illicitly excavated artefacts from so-called source countries—nations with rich archaeological heritages such as Italy, Turkey, Greece—to countries such as Britain and the US where the demand and the market for art is strong, has long been acknowledged. In 1995 police raided four warehouses in the Freeport of Geneva and discovered some 10,000 antiquities collectively valued at around $40 million but lacking documented legal provenances.

Over 100 countries have ratified the Unesco convention so far, including Greece, the UK, Japan, Spain, France, and the US. Its application is different in each country. For example in the US only three years’ ownership is needed to establish good title to property and in the UK, six.

Neil Brodie, research director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at Cambridge University, welcomed the new law, saying: “Switzerland has long been infamous for its role in the laundering of stolen and looted antiquities. The new law goes much further than the British implementation of the Unesco Convention and it promises to make a real impact on the unethical and even criminal traders who have in the past operated there.”

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Jean-David Cahn, former president of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art, whose family has been in the antiquities art trade since the 1880s, and in Basel since the 1930s, said: “Switzerland moves slowly and it has a taken a long time to arrive at these measures. They are the product of many compromises and committee meetings between all parties involved and are more severe than any corresponding legislation in other countries. To comply will be very demanding for all art dealers in Switzerland as there is a great deal of self-regulation required, but the result will help the Swiss art market in the long run, and will clamp down on undesirable aspects of the trade, especially that of companies based abroad who use Switzerland, and especially its free ports, as a safe threshold for dealing in unlawfully moved art.”

All art dealers in Switzerland were invited to a meeting last month with the Federal Office of Culture, where the new laws were briefly explained, but, says Mr Cahn, the complexity of the legislation will require careful study by all dealers. At the meeting, the authorities reassured dealers, auction houses and shippers that they would not expect everyone to be an expert in the new law by 1 June. Special help desks have been set up to advise on the new legislation.

What the new law means

• Anyone buying a cultural good, as defined by the act, must “presume that it is not stolen or illicitly imported”.

• Vendors of art and auction houses must be able to establish the identity of the seller. who is obliged to produce a written declaration that he or she is the rightful owner of the object

• It will be illegal to buy or display stolen cultural property.

• Thirty years will be needed to establish good faith to stolen property (the previous requirement was five years).

• A dealer is defined as anyone earning more than SFr20,000 ($16,500) or making more than 10 transactions a year.

• dealers are obliged to inform their clients of import and export regulations of neighbouring States.

• dealers are obliged to keep a register of the origin of cultural goods (if known); the name and address of the finder and seller; the description and the price, and to keep this documentation for 30 years; to give all this information to the authorities and not restrict access to their premises.

• The owner of stolen cultural artefacts must declare its theft within one year.

• The law is not retroactive, so private collectors were required to send a list of their possessions to the State by the beginning of this month, to prevent future claims that the objects had been acquired after the law came into force.

• Good-faith buyers—people who have bought stolen or illicitly excavated works of art unknowingly—are to be compensated by the Swiss government if their object is reclaimed by its rightful owner.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Switzerland cleans up its act as thieves’ entrepôt'