Antiquity and Law – Legal Protection of Archaeological Objects

Marc Weber

TEP, Partner, Lanter Attorneys-at-Law, Zurich

In Switzerland, ownerless natural specimens and antiquities of scientific value are the property of the canton on whose territory they are found. Such objects must not be alienated without the consent of the competent cantonal authorities. They may not be purchased in good faith or acquired through adverse possession. There is no time limit on the canton’s right to recover them. Similar laws are known in other countries.

According to Swiss law, any purchaser of antiquities which were smuggled out of another country and/or which were stolen must return them to the demanding state only in certain circumstances. Smuggled cultural property must be returned if they come from a state which is a member of the UNESCO Convention of 1970 and with which Switzerland has concluded a bilateral agreement. If there are neither binding bilateral agreements nor multilateral conventions, the source state has no claim against the possessor claiming the illegal export from its territory. However, foreign export bans may be enforced in domestic courts mutually among the member states of the European Union and the European Economic Area. In such cases, even a good faith purchaser has to return the object.

In addition, the UNIDROIT Convention of 1995 governs the return of stolen cultural property and is in force among 31 countries but not in Switzerland.

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