Switzerland: Repatriation of 68 Cultural Artefacts to Italy

Posted on: March 26, 2014 by

In early March, the Public Prosecutor of the Canton of Basle-City transferred the last 68 out of a total of 4,536 cultural artefacts to Italy. This concludes long lasting proceedings in international mutual legal assistance in criminal matters.

In 2000, the Italian authorities had requested Switzerland’s mutual legal assistance in criminal proceedings against an antiquities dealer. The defendant and further accomplices were accused of inter alia illegal transfer of cultural property, non-registration of archaeological finds and receiving of stolen goods. Following the Italian authorities’ request, the Public Prosecutor of the Canton of Basle-City searched the Swiss premises of the antiquities dealer and seized c. 5,800 cultural artefacts. The objects in question, most of which originated from illegal excavations in Italy, included ceramics, bronze figures and grave decorations from ancient Etruscan and Roman times.

In November 2008, the Swiss authorities temporarily transferred 4,000 of the seized cultural artefacts to Italy for evidentiary purposes in the criminal proceedings. It was agreed that the Italian authorities had three years, which was subsequently prolonged, to establish the provenance of the objects. Those objects, which could not be assigned to Italian origin, were to be returned to Switzerland. Subsequently, the Italian authorities returned 19 artefacts of unclear provenance.

In September 2012, the Public Prosecutor of the Canton of Basle-City ordered that the cultural artefacts, which previously had been transferred on a temporary basis, would remain permanently in Italy for the purpose of forfeiture.  Furthermore, an additional 68 objects were to be transferred to Italy for the same reason. The defendants, who had appealed thirteen times during the last thirteen years against the return of the cultural artefacts, again challenged this cantonal ruling.  However, the appeal was dismissed by the Federal Criminal Court in its judgment of 25th June 2013 (RR.2012.232) and by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court in its judgment of 19th August 2013 (1C_628/2013). In March 2014, the order of the Public Prosecutor of the Canton of Basle-City was executed and Italy received the remaining 68 objects. To this day, there are still several hundred cultural artefacts with an unestablished provenance in the possession of the Swiss authorities.

These proceedings demonstrate Switzerland’s endeavours against trafficking in illegally excavated cultural artefacts.  Since 27th April 2008, a bilateral agreement between Switzerland and Italy on the Import and Repatriation of Cultural Property is in force.

Sources: ‘Kulturgüter an Italien zurückerstattet’, published on the website of the Federal Office of Culture on 6th March 2014; ‘Rund 4500 Kulturgüter aus illegalen Grabungen werden Italien zurückgegeben ’, published on Basellandschaftliche Zeitung on 6th March 2014.