Switzerland’s black box: the Geneva Free Ports and the global art trafficking

Diplomatie & internationale Akteure

After French President Macron announced his intention to help the repatriation of African cultural heritage looted during colonial times, several African states have filed in their first requests. While Switzerland does not share France’s colonial past, it is still embroiled in the contemporary traffic of antiquities. This is due to legislative shortcomings and lax enforcement of regulations, especially in the Free Ports. Enforcing standards, higher accountability and cooperation with international bodies could improve this situation.

Switzerland’s art and antiquities market

The structure of the art and antiquities market is often described as ‘grey’, as licit and illicit activities often mix. This environment facilitates the laundering of stolen or trafficked items, a practice small antiquarians and auction companies alike have been involved in. Estimates of the illicit market volume range from 6 to 8 billion USD. Human trafficking and illegal arms trade, and the funding of terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS, have also been associated with it. Conflicts also increase looting and illegal excavations, as exemplified in Iraq and Syria. Switzerland, as  a large market country for art, has increased its regulations to prevent art trafficking (see for instance the 2005 ‘Loi pour le Transfer des Biens Culturels’ and revision of customs laws in 2005 and 2015). Yet, it remains an attractive transfer country to launder goods, due to its legislative framework and the presence of Free Ports.

The Free Ports: Switzerland’s weakest link

The Free Ports in Geneva are identified as weak points facilitating trafficking, a UNESCO report indicates. They account for 48% of Swiss free ports in terms of storage capacity (around 56’000 m2 out of 117’000 m2) and specialise in art storage, possibly containing up to 1.2 million artworks. However, various shortcomings have been associated with Free Ports, and Geneva’s in particular. A 2014 report by the Swiss Federal Audit Office highlighted various issues, including very few controls for its size (664 controls in Zürich for 118 in Geneva) and a lack of standardised regulations and coordination between customs office reports. Staff shortages also increase the risk of criminal activities: in 2015, only four or five specialised staff were assigned to check the 40 to 45 tons of transiting ‘sensitive merchandise’.

Inventories, key to ensure traceability and transparency, are often non-inexistent or outdated, despite the revised law introducing the obligation to hold inventories for ‘sensitive merchandise’ (this includes art and antiquities). Cultural goods have also been moved within the Free Ports before controls in some cases, with no sanction in case of non-compliance with inventory regulations. Such environment enables document falsification, e.g. modifying the origin of illegally acquired artefacts, and result in a situation in which the Free Ports are effectively facilitating art trafficking, by allowing stolen items to be stored during a ‘cool down’ period, before being sold years later. Despite the modified legislation of 2015 and tightened regulations, including systematically controlling incoming antiquities, (illegal) artefacts are still found. In 2016, antiquities from Palmyra were discovered, and experts estimate that trafficking of Syrian artefacts will intensify. It thus remains uncertain whether stolen art or illicitly excavated antiquities are not stored in Switzerland.

Potential measures

Although the Free Ports are legally required to hold an inventory of ‘sensitive merchandise’, in practice, customs offices have not formulated any requirements. Upholding a higher standard of inventory quality would hinder frauds such as modifying the origin of goods. Extending the obligation of inventory to all ‘sensitive merchandises’ – including the objects already stored – would also help, while an administrative or penal sanction for outdated or missing inventories would encourage compliance. Reinforcing controls by customs offices, or allocating a higher budget and staff dedicated to controls could also prevent trafficking. Regarding legislation, the LTBC and the revision of borders laws were important steps to prevent trafficking, as mentioned above, but they do not cover all cases. Ratifying the UNIDROIT Convention of 1995 would therefore constitute a complement to these measures, while further bilateral treaties with source countries would aid repatriation. More generally, increased collaboration with stakeholders at a national and international level, including auction houses, customs offices, INTERPOL, antiquarians, legal advisors, as well as increased inter-cantonal collaboration, will be needed. This would allow to tackle newer issues in art trafficking, such as the rise of internet platforms selling trafficked artefacts, or the risks arising from an increasingly connected world. A UNODC report published in 2016 estimated that a more interconnected Southeast Asia has increased trafficking; as development in both Southeast and Central Asia improved, the trafficking of art from these regions, already a well-documented phenomenon, will undoubtedly intensify. While Switzerland has improved its regulations in the past decades, further steps such as those suggested would reinforce its commitment to tackling global art trafficking.

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