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An expert from Bulgaria's National History Museum shows an ancient coin, featuring Alexander The Great, at a news conference in Sofia on June 16, 2011. Canada returned 21,000 illegally excavated and smuggled coins to Bulgaria. ©BELGA_AFP_N.DOYCHINOV 

An informal deal with Council on revised rules to help member states recover cultural objects unlawfully removed from their territory was endorsed by the Culture and Education Committee on Thursday by 14 votes to one.

Several EU countries, such as Italy, Poland, France, and Germany and Romania, have suffered serious thefts and illegal exports of cultural heritage goods since the single market was created.

Any object which is classified by a member state’s national law as a "national treasure", and which was unlawfully removed from its territory after 1993, could henceforth be recovered by means of a more flexible return procedure. To enable repatriation of the largest possible number of objects, all age and financial value limits have been deleted from the new text.

National authorities will have 6 months (previously 2 months) to establish whether an object found in another member state constitutes a classified cultural object, illegally removed from its territory, and may file their claim for restitution within 3 years (previously one year).

Compensation is due only if the goods were acquired with "due diligence".

A person who possesses a cultural object claimed by a member state would have to prove that when acquiring the object, he or she took all necessary steps to ascertain that it came from a legal source: the circumstances of the acquisition, the exit permits required and consultation of stolen cultural object registers would be taken into account.

If the possessor cannot provide such evidence, the claimant state would no longer be required to pay him or her compensation.

Statistics on crimes against national heritage

The European Commission estimates that about 8,000 crimes against national heritage are committed, and about 40,000 cultural objects illegally removed, every year. Internationally, cultural objects are the third most smuggled item, after drugs and arms, according to UNESCO and UN statistics.

Next steps

Plenary will vote on the final report on Wednesday, 16 April at noon after Tuesday evening's debate. The recast than needs formal approval by Council to enter into force.