Swiss missing comprehensive laws on looted art

Swissinfo 16 December 2008

Ten years after Switzerland signed up to international standards for the return of Holocaust-era assets, there is no comprehensive legislation to deal with looted art.

European states that were directly involved in the plunder of cultural objects, Germany in particular, have adopted broader strategies to recover goods objects taken from Jewish families during the Second World War.

The issue was the theme of a two-day conference in Berlin.

"We know that cultural property had been systematically taken away from Jewish people in Nazi-occupied or governed states. And sometimes, this cultural property also ended up in other countries, like Switzerland," said Benno Widmer, the head of the Specialized Body for the International Transfer of Cultural Property at the Federal Culture Office.

Widmer told swissinfo that since adopting the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets along with 43 other states ten years ago, authorities in Bern have "taken an active role".

"If one thinks that the topic of looted art is over, that is not true," he said.

Switzerland's art laws however place stringent restrictions on federal collections only. Unlike money laundering legislation, which obligates people and firms to notify authorities if they know of or suspect illegal financial transactions, most art institutions can stay quiet if their collections hold plundered works.

During a debate on amendments to the country's money laundering laws in last September's parliamentary session, the suggestion to place the art trade under the same scrutiny as the financial industry failed to gain support among legislators.

In the 1990s, uncomfortable revelations surfaced about Swiss banks handling assets looted by the Nazis. In 1998, Swiss banks paid out $1.25 billion (SFr1.47 billion) in a settlement to heirs of dormant account holders. Governments in Germany and Austria have incorporated the return of stolen works into their reparation programmes.

« The progress that has been made has not been very substantial. »

Herbert Winter

Inconsistent rules

Art held outside federal institutions – in cantonal and private collections – is subject to more inconsistent sets of rules. In many cases, the threshold of responsibility for traders and auctioneers is significantly lower unless there is a transaction.

The Cultural Property Transfer Act prohibits federally-owned galleries from acquiring or displaying stolen art but holds dealers to the standard of "assum[ing], under the circumstances" that cultural artefacts are legal before performing a transaction."

The Federal Culture Office stresses however that some cantons and private collections may even operate under stricter guidelines than federal museums.

"Switzerland is an important place for trading art," said Herbert Winter, the head of the Swiss Association of Jewish Communities and a lawyer specialising in dormant bank accounts.

"I can only assume that a lot of irregularities have been going on in Switzerland and that there was and probably still is a lot of looted art here."

Winter acknowledges that the Washington Conference has raised awareness of the issue and says some Swiss museums have made "remarkable" efforts to identify looted assets in their collections.

"Still the progress that has been made has probably not been very substantial," he told swissinfo.

But the Specialized Body for the International Transfer of Cultural Property, established in mid-2005 through federal legislation, is less of an enforcement agency than it is a monitor, Winter says.

« If you want to change the law, the mandate has to come from the legislature. »

Benno Widmer

"Good intentions"

"The money seems to be missing for in-depth research on collections owned by the cantons. The Federal Culture Office has certainly good intentions, but only very limited competences," he said.

Widmer explained the Swiss system was based on "three pillars" - transparency, legality and equitability - but admitted it was sometimes difficult to translate procedure into a fair outcome.

"We are open to evaluating adaptations and suggestions to new solutions," he said.

"If one really wants to strengthen the search for looted art, then the law should be changed and an obligation should be imposed on whoever holds art of which he knows or assumes that it could have been looted in the past to notify the authorities," Winter said.

"If the violation of this duty carries penal sanctions, I would imagine that a lot of looted art would show up. But I am not aware of any moves to change the law into that direction," he added.

The Federal Culture Office has stated it would be "interested" to approach looted art the same way it does illegal money but Widmer says there is little an administration can do without legislative authorisation.

"If you want to change the law, the mandate has to come from the legislator," he said.

swissinfo, Justin Häne
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