Long seen as a hub of global art trafficking, Switzerland’s image is improving five years after a law on the international transfer of art objects came into force.
Alongside the United States, France and Britain, Switzerland is one of the principle trading centres for art.
But until 2005 there was no law or national regulation governing this lucrative sector, which accounted for SFr1.39 billion ($1.21 billion) of imports and SFr1.4 billion of exports in 2009. This situation encouraged traffickers and unscrupulous art collectors.
In June 2005, lawmakers passed regulations governing the import of cultural property into Switzerland, its transit, export and repatriation. It includes measures against illicit transfer, as well, including due diligence for traders and auctioning businesses.
Five years later, the Federal Justice Office carried out a study into its effects and organised a special event at the border to hand back archaeological artefacts to Italy.
The event, held in the picturesque gardens of the customs museum in Gandria, coincided with the opening of an exhibition of smuggled items, entitled “For Sale?”. The exhibition is jointly organised by the Culture Office and the federal customs authority.
The exhibition offers the public the opportunity to learn about how smugglers work, the countries most affected, and the means available to the customs authorities to deal with those breaking the law.
Switzerland is now a model for other countries in the way it tackles the issue, according to Jean-Frédéric Jauslin, the head of the Culture Office.
“Switzerland has significantly improved its image with Unesco, and I should also mention that our country was elected to head the Unesco committee, with the best result in voting since the organisation was created,” he said.
“In Switzerland things may change slowly but when we put a law in place, we apply it vigorously. And that is the message which has come through.”
Yet the art scene was at first fiercely opposed to regulation of the market, believing that this could destroy business. They worried in vain: in 2009 Switzerland climbed from fifth to fourth in the ranking of global art centres.
Even Jauslin admits that “it is hard to quantify the impact of the law on the international transfer of art objects”. But 400 investigations have led to 11 cases being reported by the customs authorities.
The cantonal authorities are responsible for taking legal action. But the law’s greatest strength is its deterrent effect.
This is also the experience of Geneva lawyer Marc-André Reynold, co-director of the Geneva University Art-Law Centre.
“It often happens now that clients contact me to find out the legal framework before they commit to a purchase. That is something that never happened before the law took effect.”
“The fight against plundering and cultural-goods trafficking should know no boundaries,” commented Giovanni Nistri, commander of the Italian cultural heritage protection brigade, who was invited to Gandria by the Culture Office to stress the importance of transnational cooperation in this area.
In fact, Switzerland has concluded five bilateral accords: with Italy and Peru in 2006, with Greece in 2007, and with Colombia and Egypt in 2010. Thanks to these accords, cultural goods considered to have a high national-heritage value enjoy extra protection and can be the subject of judicial cooperation.
Tempted by the prospect of rapid gains, smugglers and criminal organisations will stop at nothing. Many emerging nations and developing countries are the first victims of this type of commerce yet scarcely have the means to fight it and protect their treasures.
The plunderers, on the other hand, often have sophisticated tools at their disposal, such as satellites, enabling them to locate sites likely to conceal archaeological treasure. The criminals can also count on corruption to be able to transfer the objects with ease.
Cambodia, Colombia, Italy and Mali in particular suffer systematic plundering of their archaeological sites. In Cambodia, what is available for purchase is said to exceed demand, and in the south of the peninsula, some 100,000 antique tombs have been plundered in recent years.
The fruits of these illegal raids often end up for sale on the internet – a “free” market and the ideal platform for selling goods quickly and slipping things through the net.
Despite all efforts and the international fight against art trafficking, plundering has massively increased in recent decades. At the Culture Office and Unesco there is no hesitation in speaking of “the risk to our cultural heritage which is threatened with destruction”.
Nicole della Pietra in Gandria, swissinfo.ch (Translated from French by Morven McLean)
Law on international transfer of art objects covers:
The protection of Swiss cultural heritage (export of cultural goods from Switzerland)
Other countries’ contribution to protecting cultural heritage (import of cultural goods to Switzerland)
Encouraging international exchange between museums
(guarantee of restitution to museums)
Due diligence in the trading of art objects and auctions
International fight against trafficking
At the international level, the illegal trade in cultural goods comes third after the fight against drugs and arms trafficking.
To better combat the theft of cultural goods, Unesco adopted an international multilateral treaty known as the Unesco Convention of 1970.
The member states are committed to taking measures to ban and prevent the import, export and transfer of cultural goods property.
119 countries have signed up to the accord. Switzerland ratified it in 2003.
The federal law on the international transfer of cultural goods is the fulfilment of the 1970 Unesco Convention. It came into force on June 1, 2005.
For Sale? Smuggling of cultural goods and customs
The exhibition, which runs until October 15, uncovers the problem of the criminal movement of cultural goods and casts light on smuggling and the theft of art objects.
Organised by the federal customs administration and the Federal Culture Office service on the international transfer of cultural goods, the exhibition is in two parts.
“For Sale? Smuggling of cultural goods and customs” highlights the action and the means at the disposal of the federal authorities in tackling the illicit transfer of cultural goods.
Photographs illustrate the gravity and extent of the plundering of cultural goods. The exhibition presents examples of stolen goods, including an earthenware statuette of the Nok culture in Nigeria and a bronze plaque from Benin.