In May 2014, the Specialized Body for the International Transfer of Cultural Property at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (‘Specialized Body‘) handed over 150 Roman coins to Serbia. The majority of these coins date from the 4th century A.D. and are made of bronze. Following their illegal excavation in Serbia, the coins were brought to Switzerland by car with the goal of selling them on the internet. The Serbian national transporting the coins failed to declare them at the Swiss customs. However, the Customs Authorities of the Canton of Basel detected the illegally exported coins at the Swiss border and brought them to the attention of the Specialized Body. The Specialized Body came to the conclusion that the coins were authentic and qualified as cultural property of significant archaeological importance. Thus, the Custom Authorities withheld the coins and reported the Serbian national to the competent Cantonal Criminal Prosecution Authorities for breach of the Federal Act on the International Transfer of Cultural Property (Cultural Property Transfer Act, ‘CPTA‘). The Cantonal Criminal Prosecution Authorities seized the coins and handed them over to the Specialized Body to return to Serbia.
Historically, Switzerland has been a transit country. The CPTA, which came into force on 1st June 2005 and implemented the 1970 UNESCO Convention into Swiss law, aims at enhancing the transparency of cultural property transfers.
A person importing archeological excavations is obliged to declare to the Customs Authorities the type (e.g. statue) and the place of excavation of the imported object (art. 25(1) Cultural Property Transfer Ordinance, ‘CPTO‘). In addition, if archeological excavations are imported from a State party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the person is required to specify whether the export in question is subject to a permit under the laws of that State (art. 25(2) CPTO). However, an obligation to present the actual export permit arises only where Switzerland has concluded a bilateral agreement on the import and repatriation of cultural property with that State (art. 7 CPTA). Such bilateral agreements have so far been concluded with Italy, Egypt, Greece, Colombia, China and Cyprus – but not with Serbia.
The Customs Authorities inspect, by way of random sampling, items of cultural property imported into Switzerland (art. 19(1) CPTA). They are supported by the Specialized Body, which pursues enquiries regarding suspicious cultural property. If the Specialized Body confirms such a suspicion, the Customs Authorities will file a report with the competent Cantonal Criminal Prosecution Authorities for breach of the CPTA (art. 19(2) CPTA). To this day, the Specialized Body has investigated over 100 cases, 67 of which led to initiation of criminal proceedings. It is in the Cantonal Criminal Prosecution Authorities’ discretion to seize cultural property based on art. 20 CPTA in connection with art. 69 Swiss Criminal Act. Any seized cultural property is handed over to the Swiss Confederation and repatriated to the State of origin (arts 27 and 28 CPTA). In this process, the Specialized Body takes on the role of representing Switzerland vis-à-vis foreign authorities.
Missing or false import declarations constitute a criminal offence according to art. 24(1)(c) CPTA. If done intentionally, this may lead to imprisonment up to one year or a fine up to Swiss Francs 100,000 (equivalent to c. GBP 65,000). It is important to point out that negligence is also punishable with a fine up to Swiss Francs 20,000 (equivalent to c. GBP 13,000). These criminal offences apply to any person importing cultural property, not just the experienced art market participant. However, the expected level of diligence varies according to the individual’s profession and experience.
In light of the summer holidays, this case should serve as a reminder to everyone who intends to bring home cultural goods from abroad. It is advisable to think twice before importing objects of unclear provenance.
Sources: ‘Rückgabe von antiken Münzen an die serbische Regierung‘, press release of the Swiss Federal Office for Culture dated 27th May 2014.