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Since 1993, the EU has had legislation providing for the physical return of cultural objects that have been unlawfully removed from EU countries' territory. This legislation aims to reconcile the fundamental principle of the free movement of goods with the protection of national treasures. This legislation is applicable to the European Economic Area countries.

Legislation on the return of cultural goods

Directive 2014/60/EU

Directive 2014/60/EU of 15 May 2014 (see the corrigendum published on 12 June 2015), which is a recast of Directive 93/7/EEC applies as from 19 December 2015.

As was the case with Directive 93/7/EEC, the new Directive provides for cooperation mechanisms and return proceedings against the possessor to secure the return of a cultural object unlawfully removed from the territory of one EU country to the territory of another EU country on, or after, 1 January 1993.

The Directive introduces some important new elements, for example

  • it covers all cultural objects identified as 'national treasures possessing artistic, historic or archaeological value' under national legislation
  • central authorities shall cooperate and promote consultation using the Internal Market Information System (IMI) in order, for example, to
    • search for a specified cultural object that has been unlawfully removed, as well as the identity of its possessor
    • notify the discovery of a cultural object
    • enable a check on the cultural object
    • act as an intermediary with regards to its return
  • return proceedings should be brought no longer than 3 years after the central authority of the requesting EU country became aware of the location of the object and of the identity of its possessor
  • the possessor of a cultural object should prove that they exercised due care and attention when acquiring the object for the purpose of obtaining a compensation when the return is ordered

The European Commission has regularly adopted reports evaluating Directive 93/7/EEC. By 18 December 2020, and every 5 years thereafter, EU countries shall submit to the Commission a report on the application of Directive 2014/60. Based on the national reports, the Commission should draft a report reviewing the application of the Directive to present to the European Parliament, the Council and the European Economic and Social Committee.

The first report on the application of the Directive, adopted on 18 November 2021, is now available.

Central authorities and Commission expert group

Each EU country appoints a central authority to deal with the return of cultural objects. The list of those central authorities has been published in the Official Journal of the European Union of 28 April 2017.

Moreover, according to Directive 2014/60/EU, the Commission set up an expert group, 'return of cultural objects' in the Register of expert groups and other similar entities (Code E03204). The group aims to exchange experiences and good practices on the implementation of the Directive.