Swiss arts world split over proposed illegal goods law

New legislation would stop art dealers re-selling stolen works, such as these Crivelli paintings Keystone Archive

The Federal Office of Cultural Affairs has proposed controversial legislation to prevent the trafficking of stolen cultural goods in Switzerland.

This content was published on November 22, 2001 - 07:54

The move follows a reported increase in the illicit traffic of art objects in Switzerland, the world's fourth largest art trading centre.

The proposal has enraged art dealers in the country, who say it is tantamount to imposing "cultural police" on the art world. David Cahn, president of the International Association for Dealers of Ancient Art, compared the proposed legislation to "carrying out surgery with an axe."

In contrast to other important art dealing nations, Switzerland currently has no federal regulations on trade and trafficking of cultural objects, which range from excavated archaeological items to modern art treasures

Although no estimate of the value of the Swiss cultural goods trade is available, the cultural affairs office says it is likely to be high, given the size of the Swiss art market. Demand from countries asking for the return of stolen cultural goods has increased, authorities said.

Sacred objects stolen

In Europe alone, more than 60,000 cultural objects are officially reported stolen each year. This figure does not take into account the black market, which is likely to have a far higher value. For example, the theft of sacred objects from tribal communities or from ancient grave sites would be considered part of the black market.

"With the increase of art dealing in Switzerland, illicit traffic has unfortunately also increased, " says Andrea Rascher, head of legal and international affairs at the federal culture office. He added that the lack of regulation made it "very interesting to launder illicit cultural goods in Switzerland."

Another factor is that cultural goods of unknown origin, bought in "good faith", can legally come onto the market after a five-year delay, rather than after 30 years as in most other countries, he says. Dealers often chose to "launder" their stolen goods during this five-year period in Switzerland, says Rascher.

However, Swiss art dealers argue that Switzerland is no more prey to illicit art transfer than other countries with important art markets.

"There is no denying that there is a problem with the theft, import and export of cultural goods - but this in an international problem and Switzerland is in no way the only country to be affected," says Christoph Degen, a lawyer in Basel who specialises on the transfer of cultural goods. "There is nothing to prove that Switzerland is a particularly rife market for illegal cultural goods. It's a very exaggerated claim."

Proposed legislation

From the end of October, the Cabinet will discuss whether to ratify the Unesco Convention of 1970, which sets guidelines for regulating the international transfer of cultural objects and fosters international cooperation.

The Cabinet will discuss applying the convention to the Swiss legal framework through a proposed federal law.

The law would include further measures tightening restrictions on the movement of cultural goods in and out of Switzerland, and would raise the current five-year delay in the sale of cultural goods of unknown origin to 30 years.

Outrage in the art world

Many arts dealers and museums in Switzerland have expressed outrage at the proposed legislation and have responded by preparing a legislative counter-proposal. They argue that the new law would dramatically restrict and "criminalise" the arts market by allowing the state to intervene arbitrarily in the arts trade.

"The legislation shows a total misconception of the art trade. It will change nothing. It will just make it very difficult and very bureaucratic for the official trade - which is already very open in Switzerland - to go on," says Cahn. "It shows very little knowledge of the market and of the mechanisms of the arts trade."

Degen also argues that the legislation goes "way beyond its original target.

"Instead of being an action plan focusing on fighting specific malpractices, its measures will lead to the setting up of a cultural goods police and to the state control of the arts trade and its art dealers," says Degen.

Cahn says the idea of launching a counter proposal is "in the interest of the Swiss art trade, the collectors' community and international museums to act and to propose counter legislation."

The counter proposal is not expected to be ready until early in 2002.

by Vanessa Mock

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