The Swiss Customs Authorities at the Basel Airport discovered the 47cm tall statue in an inconspicuous parcel that was sent from the UK to a private individual in Switzerland. They immediately informed the Specialised Body for the International Transfer of Cultural Property at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (‘Specialised Body’) of their discovery. The Specialised Body pursues enquiries from the Customs Authorities as to whether an imported item meets the definition of a cultural object (see Art. 2(1) of the Cultural Property Transfer Act (‘CPTA’) referring to Art. 1 UNESCO Convention 1970). It draws on a network of independent art experts for each enquiry. The Specialised Body confirmed that the statue was over 2,200 years old, dating from the Chinese Han dynasty and that the statue qualifies as a cultural object within the scope of the UNESCO Convention.
According to Art. 19 CPTA in connection with Art. 25(1) Cultural Property Transfer Order, a person importing cultural property is obliged to declare to the Customs Authorities the type and the country of origin of the item. Since the importing party failed to do so in this case, the Chinese statue was brought into Switzerland illegally. As a result, the Customs Authorities filed a report with the competent Cantonal Criminal Prosecution Authorities (Art. 19(2) CPTA).
Failing to declare cultural property constitutes a criminal offence according to the CPTA. Acting negligently may lead to a fine of up to Swiss Francs 20,000 (Art. 24(2) CPTA), acting intentionally may lead to one year imprisonment or a fine of up to Swiss Francs 100,000 (Art. 24(1)c CPTA). If cultural property is illegally imported on a professional basis, the sanction is up to two years imprisonment or a fine of up to Swiss Francs 200,000 (Art. 24(3) CPTA). Furthermore, it is in the Cantonal Criminal Prosecution Authorities’ discretion to seize cultural property (Art. 20(1) CPTA in connection with Art. 69 Swiss Criminal Act). The importing party was convicted and the seizure of the statue confirmed. In accordance with arts 27 and 28 CPTA, the statue was handed over to the Swiss Confederation and repatriated to China.
In January 2014, the bilateral Agreement on Illicit Import and Export and Repatriation of Cultural Property between Switzerland and China entered into force. The return of the statue to China underscores Switzerland’s efforts to combat the illegal trade in cultural property.
Source: ‘Rückgabe einer Terrakotta-Statue aus der Han-Dynastie an China‘, press release published by the Swiss Federal Office of Culture on 11 Dec 2014.