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Return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of an EU country

This directive secures the return of national treasures of artistic, historic or archaeological value that have been unlawfully removed from the territory of an European Union (EU) country once controls have been abolished at internal frontiers.

ACT

Council Directive 93/7/EEC of 15 March 1993 on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State [See amending acts].

SUMMARY

The purpose of the directive is to ensure the return of cultural objects classed as "national treasures possessing artistic, historic or archaeological value" under national legislation or administrative procedures, provided that they:

  • fall within one of the categories listed in the annex to the directive;
  • form an integral part of public collections recorded in the inventories of museums, archives or libraries or those of ecclesiastical institutions.

To apply the directive, European Union (EU) countries may class an object as a national treasure even after it has left their territory. They may also extend the scope of application to cultural objects that do not belong to any of the categories listed in the annex.

The directive applies where such objects have been removed from the territory of an EU country unlawfully, i.e. in breach of the legislation in force there or of the conditions under which temporary authorisation was granted. Consequently, the objects must be returned, irrespective of whether they have been moved within the Union or first exported to a non-EU country and then re-imported to another EU country.

The directive applies only to cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of an EU country on or after 1 January 1993. However, EU countries may broaden the scope to include objects that have been unlawfully removed from their territory before 1 January 1993.

Each EU country appoints one or more authorities to carry out the tasks provided for in the directive. The Commission publishes updated lists of these authorities in the Official Journal of the EU.

Administrative cooperation for the amicable return of objects

The central authorities of each EU country are to cooperate and promote consultation with the competent national authorities of other EU countries to ensure the return of cultural objects. The central authorities must:

  • seek a specified cultural object that has been unlawfully removed from an EU country’s territory, identifying the possessor and/or holder *;
  • notify the EU country concerned, where a cultural object is found in their own territory and there are grounds for believing that it has been unlawfully removed from the territory of another EU country;
  • enable the EU country concerned to check within two months of the notification that the object in question is a cultural object covered by the directive;
  • take any necessary measures for the physical preservation of the cultural object;
  • prevent any action to evade the return procedure;
  • act as intermediary between the possessor or holder of the object and the requesting EU country *.

Initiation of proceedings before a court for return of objects

Only the courts of the requested EU country * have the power to order the object's return to the requesting EU country if the possessor or holder should refuse to release it. The burden of proof is governed by the legislation of the requested EU country.

Only an EU country may initiate proceedings with the aim of securing the return of a cultural object. Private owners of cultural objects may only bring proceedings provided for under ordinary law.

Return proceedings may not be brought more than one year after the requesting EU country becomes aware of the location of the cultural object and the identity of its possessor or holder. To be admissible, the application must be accompanied by a:

  • document describing the object covered by the request and stating that it is a cultural object within the meaning of the directive;
  • declaration by the competent authorities of the requesting EU country that the cultural object has been unlawfully removed from its territory.

Such proceedings may in any case not be brought more than 30 years after the object is unlawfully removed from the territory of the requesting EU country, except in the case of objects forming part of public collections or ecclesiastical goods in respect of which the time-limit is governed by national legislation or bilateral agreements between EU countries.

This directive is without prejudice to any civil or criminal proceedings that may be brought, under the national law of EU countries, by the requesting EU country or the owner of the object.

Financial aspects

When the return of a cultural object is ordered, the possessor is entitled to fair compensation if s/he proves that due care was exercised when acquiring the object. This compensation is to be paid by the requesting EU country, which may, however, claim reimbursement from the persons responsible for the unlawful removal of the object. Following the object's return, the question of its ownership is governed by the legislation of the requesting EU country.

Implementation

The Committee on the Export and Return of Cultural Goods (previously known as Advisory Committee on Cultural Goods) assists the Commission in examining any matter relating to the application of the annex to the directive.

EU countries must send the Commission a report every three years on the application of the directive, based on which the Commission reports to the European Parliament, the Council and the European Economic and Social Committee.

Key terms used in the act
  • Requesting EU country: the EU country from whose territory the cultural object has been unlawfully removed;
  • Requested EU country: the EU country in whose territory a cultural object unlawfully removed from the territory of another EU country is located;
  • Possessor/Holder: the person physically holding the cultural object on his own account/for third parties.

REFERENCES

ActEntry into forceDeadline for transposition in the Member StatesOfficial Journal
Directive 93/7/EEC

27.3.1993

15.12.1993 (15.3.1994 for Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands)

OJ L 74 of 27.3.1993

Amending act(s)Entry into forceDeadline for transposition in the Member StatesOfficial Journal
Directive 96/100/EC

21.3.1997

1.9.1997

OJ L 60 of 1.3.1997

Directive 2001/38/EC

30.7.2001

31.12.2001

OJ L 187 of 10.7.2001

Successive amendments and corrections to Directive 93/7/EEC have been incorporated in the basic text. This consolidated version is for reference purposes only.

AMENDMENT OF ANNEXES

Categories to which objects classified as national treasures must belong to qualify for return:
Directive 96/100/EC [Official Journal L 60 of 1.3.1997];
Directive 2001/38/EC [Official Journal L 187 of 10.7.2001].

RELATED ACTS

Council Resolution of 21 January 2002 on the Commission report on the implementation of Regulation (EEC) No 3911/92 on the export of cultural goods and Directive 93/7/EEC on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State [Official Journal C 32 of 5.2.2002].
The Council takes note of the Commission's initiatives, calls on EU countries to cooperate more closely among themselves and with the Commission, and asks the Commission to pursue the initiatives launched and pay particular attention to Regulation (EEC) No 3911/92 and Directive 93/7/EEC when the candidate countries join the EU.

Reports

Report from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament and the European Economic and Social Committee of 30 July 2009 – Third report on the application of Council Directive 93/7/EEC on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State [COM(2009) 408 final – Not published in the Official Journal].
This report reviews EU countries’ application of the directive during the period 2004-07. In general, the directive is perceived as a useful tool for the return of unlawfully removed cultural objects and the protection of cultural heritage. EU countries recognise its discouraging effect on the unlawful removal of cultural objects; however, they find that the directive alone does not suffice for combating illegal trade in cultural goods.
During the reference period, the directive was applied only rarely for administrative cooperation or for return proceedings. This is mainly due to the administrative complexity and cost of applying the directive, its limited scope, and the short time period allowed for initiating return proceedings and the interpretation of the related concepts.
EU countries used administrative cooperation to search for cultural objects and to notify of their discovery on the territory of another EU country. As a result, 148 amicable returns of cultural objects were carried out. Eight legal actions were initiated for the return of objects.
Even though administrative cooperation within and between EU countries has improved, there is the need to further enhance cooperation between authorities at national and European level. To this end, the Commission will update the existing guidelines and publish lists of the responsible national authorities. In addition, EU countries propose modifications to the directive to improve its effectiveness. These include extending the time limit for initiating return proceedings from one to three years, reviewing the scope of the directive as well as amending its annex to include new categories of goods or to modify the financial threshold or the reporting rate.
The Commission will propose the setting up of an ad hoc working group within the Committee on the Export and Return of Cultural Goods to identify problems associated with the application of the directive and to suggest solutions acceptable to all EU countries, with a view to possibly amending the directive.

Report from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament and the European Economic and Social Committee of 21 December 2005 – Second report on the application of Council Directive 93/7/EEC on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State [COM(2005) 675 final – Not published in the Official Journal].
This report covers the application of the directive during the period 1999-2003. It reveals that the directive has been applied in only a few cases. EU countries have reported five amicable returns and three legal proceedings for returns. These rather low figures highlight serious shortcomings in administrative cooperation and consultation between the national central authorities. To remedy these shortcomings, the Commission will examine to what extent the recommendations set out in the guidelines adopted by the Advisory Committee on Cultural Goods for improving administrative cooperation have been acted upon.
EU countries consider insufficient the time limit of one year for initiating proceedings for the return of cultural objects. Subject to the outcome of consultations with the Advisory Committee on Cultural Goods, the Commission proposes extending this time-limit to three years.
Concerning the financial thresholds applicable to cultural objects covered by Directive 93/7/EEC, the report reveals contradictory opinions between EU countries as to whether these should be raised or lowered. The Commission does not therefore intend to propose amending the thresholds.
In view of the limited number of cases of application of Directive 93/7/EEC, the Commission suggests that the obligation to produce a report every three years be scrapped. The Advisory Committee on Cultural Goods must give its opinion on this.

Report from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament and the Economic and Social Committee of 25 May 2000 on the implementation of Council Regulation (EEC) No 3911/92 on the export of cultural goods and Council Directive 93/7/EEC on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State [COM (2000) 325 final – Not published in the Official Journal].
This report states that the measures listed have made EU countries and international traders aware of the need to improve protection for cultural goods at European level. However, it recognises that the measures have had a limited influence on the fight against illegal trade in cultural goods. It points out that laying down a structure for administrative cooperation and for information to be exchanged between the relevant authorities could improve the application of the directive and the regulation.
The report contains lists of the customs offices empowered to handle formalities for the export of cultural goods, the authorities empowered to issue export licences for cultural goods and the central authorities responsible for implementing the provisions of Council Directive 93/7/EEC.

Last updated: 25.06.2010

See also

  • European Commission Directorate-General Enterprise and Industry website on cultural goods
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