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Swiss Federal Criminal Court orders Geneva warehouse firm to return statue to Egypt

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The statue of King Djefedre was reportedly sourced illegally from near the Great Sphinx in Giza. Photo: Ukrainian/De
11:52 CEST+02:00
The court ruled that the storage company based at the Geneva Free Port, a global hub of ancient artifacts and valuable artworks, is to hand over the identity documents of a statue of King Djefedre to the Egyptian government, which claims the statue was illegally acquired from a site near the Great Sphinx.

The court's decision upholds an earlier ruling by the Geneva public prosecutor. Both bodies found that the statue did not meet international requirements for the legal sourcing of antiquities. 

Egyptian authorities, who filed a request in 2017 for the statue to be returned to Egypt, claim it was illegally sourced from a site in Giza, home to some of the world's most famous monuments such as the Great Sphinx and the Great Pyramid of Giza, reports Geneva daily Tribune de Genève.

The statue had been held by the Swiss company in a warehouse at the Geneva Free Port, one of the world's largest depots for art and antiquities, since 2013. The Geneva Free Port held more than 1 million of the world's most valuable artworks in 2016, according to the New York Times, including 1,000 works by Picasso. 

The Swiss warehousing firm disputes the decision and is looking to appeal the Federal Criminal Court's ruling to hand over all documents relating to the statue to the Egyptian government. Tribune de Genève cited a lawyer for the firm, who said the decision was an effort by Egyptian authorities "to exploit" the situation.

It claims that the fragment of the statue of King Djefedre, a 4th Egyptian dynasty ruler, had been in Switzerland since 1958 and therefore precedes the 1970 UNESCO Convention – officially called the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property – which prohibits the sale and distribution of illegal artifacts. The company argued that the statue, which has since been sold and is reportedly now in London, is not from the Giza site.

Geneva has a reputation as a pivot for the illegal trade in objects from antiquity but has reportedly cleaned up its act in the last two years. 

"Geneva has always been known as a hub for trafficking in antiquities, but the situation has been getting better for a few years. The legal framework has been strengthened," Philippe Collombert, professor of Egyptology at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), told Tribune de Genève. 

"Some estimates suggest that in 80-90% of sales of antiquities, the goods have illicit origins," states a 2017 report by the European Commission on the black market trade in antiquities. The same report states that only narcotics and the black market trade in weapons are more lucrative. It estimates that the global racket in illegal antiquities is worth between €2 billion and €5 billion annually.

In 2016, the office of the Swiss attorney general set up a team of two prosecutors to handle cases of trafficking in cultural property. The prosecutors are currently working on some 20 cases, according to the Geneva daily. 

"We do not want any illegal goods in our walls," Alain Decrausaz, general manager of the Geneva Free Port, told the news outlet, citing a spate of new checks and controls since 2016 – which are administered by a neutral regulator. "We must clean up the sector. Everyone is in tune today," added Decrausaz. 

READ MORE: Answer to Sotheby's and Greek dispute over an ancient artifact could lie in Basel

 

 

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