Deal signed against traffic of illicit goods

Italy wants the return of objects it considers stolen from the country Keystone

Switzerland and Italy have signed a deal making it harder for smugglers to use Switzerland as a conduit for stolen antiquities.

This content was published on October 21, 2006 - 11:46

The accord, signed by Swiss Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin and Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli in Rome on Friday regulates the import and return of cultural goods.

Under the deal, customs officials from both countries will have to ensure that importers of antiquities from both Switzerland and Italy have proof of the artefact's origin and of its lawful export from the neighbouring country.

Couchepin, whose remit covers culture, said the agreement was important because both countries were affected by the illicit trade in cultural goods.

"The art market in Switzerland is an important market," he said. "We strongly wish to have an ethical, clean and responsible market."

For his part, Rutelli noted that traffickers would have to "go somewhere else" and that awareness of the illegal trade was making it increasingly difficult to sell stolen or looted art.

The new agreement is expected to come into force in the first half of 2007. Swiss officials said that it was important to gain Italy's signature because the country had a huge archaeological and cultural heritage.

Authorities contend that some illegally gained Italian treasures have found their way to Switzerland and from there onto the international market.

The deal is specifically aimed at protecting artefacts dating from before the 16th century but both ministers expressed the hope that it would be extended to safeguard art produced from the Renaissance onwards.

Increased measures

The move is the latest in a series of measures by Switzerland to combat cultural goods trafficking. In June last year new legislation came into force that brought Switzerland into line with the 1970 Unesco Convention against cultural goods trafficking.

The authorities say the measures have already boosted Switzerland's standing as a place for dealing in art and antiquities.

Previously the country had gained an unwelcome reputation as a transit point for stolen artefacts because of its previous reluctance to tighten its laws on the transfer of cultural goods.

The new law obliges art dealers and auction houses to identify customers and foreign owners of stolen artwork now have 30 years to claim it back.

The Federal Culture Office says Switzerland is among the world's five biggest art trade hubs, with a market worth SFr1.5 billion ($1.2 billion).

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In brief

Couchepin and Rutelli also signed on Friday a revised deal on film coproduction. This reduces the minimum financial contribution to a joint film project from 30% to 20% and is aimed at encouraging more coproductions.

The two ministers said they wanted to boost cooperation at film festivals, including Locarno in Switzerland and Venice and Rome in Italy.

They also agreed that Swiss tourists to Italy would in the future benefit from the same entry conditions for museums and cultural institutions as European Union citizens.

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Italy's cultural heritage

According to Unesco, 60% of the world's works of art are to be found in Italy.

Under a 1939 Italian law, all antiquities discovered in the country are property of the state, making export of objects found after that date illegal.

Authorities contend that looted Italian treasures have often made their way onto the international market. Often these objects are thought to have been transited through Switzerland.

One of more spectacular cases happened in 1995, when a raid on the Geneva offices of an Italian art dealer yielded thousands of photographs and pieces of artefacts police say were looted from Italy. He was later sentenced to 10 years in prison.

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