Agreement between Switzerland and the Republic of Cyprus on the Import and Repatriation of Cultural Property Comes into Force on 15th February 2014

Posted on: February 26, 2014 by

The public nature of foreign export laws means that they are not enforceable in Switzerland.  The Swiss Federal Act on the International Transfer of Cultural Property (Cultural Property Transfer Act, ‘CPTA’), which came into force on 1st June 2005 and implements the 1970 UNESCO Convention into Swiss law, has partially changed this unsatisfactory situation.  Article 7 CPTA authorises the Swiss Federal Council to conclude bilateral agreements with other UNESCO Member States to reciprocally enforce export laws.   However, the scope of these bilateral agreements is limited to “cultural property of significant importance to the cultural heritage of the contracting state” (article 7(2)(b) CPTA).

On 15th February 2014, the Swiss Federal Council and the Government of the Republic of Cyprus concluded precisely such an agreement (‘Agreement’).  The cultural property listed in the Appendix to the Agreement includes objects dating from prehistoric times to 15th century, such as stone reliefs or sculptures, lamps made of nonferrous metals, jewellery created from bone, decorative glass artefacts, weapons made of various types wood, and many more.  This extensive interpretation of the term “significant importance to the cultural heritage” has far reaching consequences as it hampers the trade of cultural objects that, from an objective perspective, should not fall under that definition in the first place.

As a result of the Agreement, the in-scope cultural property can be imported into the territory of one Party only if the export provisions of the other Party have been complied with (article II (1) of the Agreement).  Furthermore, one Party may file an action for the repatriation of illegally exported cultural property before the domestic courts of the other Party (article III (1) of the Agreement).  Repatriation claims are successful if the claimant Party can demonstrate that the cultural property (a) is included in the Appendix to the Agreement and (b) has been illegally imported into the territory of the other Party after the Agreement came into force (article IV (1) of the Agreement).  However, if the cultural property is found to be in danger upon repatriation to the claimant Party, the other Party may suspend repatriation (article IV (2) of the Agreement).  The good faith purchaser required to repatriate cultural property is entitled to compensation from the claimant Party (article V (2) of the Agreement).  In Switzerland, repatriation claims are time-barred one year after the authorities of the claimant Party become aware of the whereabouts of the cultural property, and at the latest 30 years after the unlawful removal of the cultural property (article IV (3) of the Agreement and article 9 (4) CPTA).

The Swiss Federal Council has concluded similar bilateral agreements with Italy (in force on 27th April 2008), Egypt (in force on 20th February 2011), Greece (in force on 13th April 2011), Columbia (in force on 4th August 2011) and China (in force on 8th January 2014).