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I have a watch from Blancpain that I bought in 2014 from an individual in Poland (I have a written contract). I've sent the watch to Blancpain in Switzerland for periodic inspection and they seized it, explaining the watch was stolen 10 years ago in Germany.

In Poland, there is a law that when you bought a thing in good faith, you become the owner after 3 years even if seller was unauthorized to sell, didn't have rights to sell the item, or the item was stolen, etc.

Is there a similar law in Switzerland? Or, if the item was stolen, it doesn't matter when and you bought it in good faith (a written contract, no special price, so no suspicion of unlawful possession by seller), do I have to give it back? Or is Blancpain wrong and they can't seize it?

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    Also interesting what happens if the watch company returns the watch to the original owner. Since they have never sold, lost, or abandoned the watch, I would think they own it. Now someone else has a reasonable claim to own it as well, but I suppose nobody has the duty to hand it over to the other.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 7, 2023 at 0:28
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    Was this your first contact with Blancpain ? Because otherwise you bought a 10k+ watch from an individual (and not an official retailer) and didn't check with the manufacturer at the time to see if it is real and not counterfeit ? Can you clarify ? Because otherwise the "good faith" looks a bit shaky. If on the other hand Blancpain has serviced the watch before and this issue only recently came to light, the situation is very different. Mar 7, 2023 at 12:08
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    @Marianne013 do you have statistics on hand to show that ~99% of legitimate watch buyers check with the manufacturer? It might be a poor decision but it doesn't necessarily prove one's malice. People make poor decisions all the time, otherwise various scams would be completely impossible. Mar 7, 2023 at 22:28
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    There is always the possibility that an employee is attempting to steal your watch.
    – Monty Wild
    Mar 8, 2023 at 4:41
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    @Marianne013 that may well be true but this make OP a scam victim, rather than a fraudster. Mar 8, 2023 at 16:02

5 Answers 5

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"Gutgläubiger Erwerb gestohlener Dinge" (buying of stolen goods in good faith) is a big topic in law. Different jurisdictions handle it differently, but most European (civil law) systems have some kind of rule that accept the ownership of a buyer in such a case. Here is a good article that compares different jurisdictions on exactly such an issue. Luxury watches are a kind of art.

According to Swiss law (Art 934 ZGB), the item must be returned when discovered within 5 years of the theft. However, the rightful owner must pay for any expenses you had. Since the theft was more than 5 years ago, the watch is, in my opinion, rightfully yours.

Since Blancpain is in Switzerland, they are obviously bound to Swiss law. Also, they are not the police, so they cannot seize an item. They can only safekeep it and report to the authorities.

I would also contact a lawyer for help. It seems to me like a case you should win.

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    As I read the OP, the sale may or may not have been within 5 years of discovery. I would presume that the company isn't doing this for the first time, and that they have procedures which first and foremost shield the company from liability ...
    – o.m.
    Mar 5, 2023 at 14:48
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    @Wojciech, first you might contact the company and state that you purchased the watch in 2014 in good faith (and that you are prepared to give documents to the authorities). Ask them which laws and time limits they are applying here.
    – o.m.
    Mar 5, 2023 at 17:45
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    @DonQuiKong The watch is physically in Switzerland, so Swiss law applies. It will dictate the legality of the seizure and to whom the watch is transferred to. After it's in Poland or Germany, the matter can be continued to be pursued there.
    – user71659
    Mar 6, 2023 at 3:28
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    Do also keep in mind that cross border crimes may trigger different durations for various things, usually increasing time limits because of (primarily) the slower processes when dealing with agencies in other countries.
    – jwenting
    Mar 6, 2023 at 6:55
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    @DonQuiKong If Swiss law believes the watch to be stolen then it would not respect any contract alleging to change its ownership. It's hypothetically possible that some portion of swiss law delegates that determination of stolen/not stolen to a foreign country, but I can't find it and it seems unlikely: those kinds of laws usually flow the opposite direction, where e.g. a cultural object (or funds) that would otherwise be legal to own in Switzerland is made illegal because a foreign country says it was stolen.
    – mbrig
    Mar 6, 2023 at 23:24
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You describe a case with two or possibly three affected jurisdictions, Poland, Germany, and Switzerland.

  • First, you can of course demand that the Swiss company should give you documentation about the theft in Germany. You can contact the German police and ask for confirmation. (The Germans might also want to look at your contract for fingerprints, etc. That's presuming you are interested that the true thief is caught.)
  • All three Countries have a rule that lengthy possession of an object in good faith leads to a transfer of ownership, but the length of of the waiting period differs. You don't have the watch long enough for Germany, you may have it long enough for Switzerland.
  • There are also special rules (longer periods) when it comes to works of art. I presume the watch isn't one ...

I expect that the watch is worth so much that you should consult a lawyer.

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    swiss watches arguably do count as works of art - and many of them even are registered with their first sale...
    – Trish
    Mar 5, 2023 at 14:53
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    @Trish The source here uses the term "Kulturgut" (cultural heritage item) as requirement for the longer term. Not every piece of art is cultural heritage.
    – PMF
    Mar 6, 2023 at 5:59
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    @Trish the term "Swiss watch" has been diluted so much over the last few decades that that's hardly the case any more.
    – jwenting
    Mar 6, 2023 at 6:52
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    @Trish The idea behind the special rules for works or art is that these are individual and cannot be replicated. I'm not sure this would apply for any non-historic watch.
    – quarague
    Mar 6, 2023 at 9:27
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    @quarague I am aware of that (or the dilution of swiss watch as a term), but swiss watchmaking with jewel bearings and the precision is a cultural heritage craftsmanship. The question does not establish if the watch in question was a unique item orn unidentifiable one. A similar distinction can be on Katana in Japan: either it is a properly made handwork, a relic or work of art with cultural significance... or a tool like an iaito (training sword) or a Gunto (sp?) (WW2 officer sword) does barely get that protection. My point was mainly, that "watches are not works of art" can't be generalized.
    – Trish
    Mar 6, 2023 at 10:02
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Not directly applicable to the OP, but in England and Wales (and I suspect most jurisdictions), if the person that purported to sell/give it to you didn't have good title (because it was stolen), you don't have good title either. And it doesn't matter how long you and your ancestors have "owned" it.

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    Probably worth noting that there is still the concept of adverse possession, whereby someone who does not have good title can acquire good title after a certain period of time. It generally applies in much more restricted circumstances (especially for personal property, like a watch) than in civil law systems
    – Tristan
    Mar 6, 2023 at 10:46
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    I've only ever heard of adverse possession in relation to land (and buildings) in England. Are you sure it's applicable at all to personal / portable property?
    – bdsl
    Mar 6, 2023 at 14:24
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    @bdsl Yes, "adverse possession chattel" is what you need to search for.
    – Yakk
    Mar 6, 2023 at 16:52
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    @Tristan Yeah, but the difference is that Adverse possession has to be, well, Adverse for the law to apply, i.e. the owner has to have the means to know about the possession and decide not to contest it at the time. Stolen property that neither the owner or possessor knows about, is by definition not adversarial and doesn't count.
    – Eugene
    Mar 6, 2023 at 19:46
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    @Eugene I am aware. Adverse possession is still an important caveat to the claim in this answer that 'if the person that purported to sell/give it to you didn't have good title (because it was stolen), you don't have good title either. And it doesn't matter how long you and your ancestors have "owned" it' because you can in fact acquire good title after buying an item from someone without good title
    – Tristan
    Mar 7, 2023 at 9:41
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The key point here is the existence of good faith.

Written contract and usual price might be enough by common goods, but not by special or luxury goods. According to quick google search, Blackpain has service to check the watch authenticity before purchasing. Your failure to use that service might be interpreted as the lack of the good faith, and it looks like the reason why they feel entitled to seize your watch, because the 5 year period apply only if good faith is present.

Only court can decide if good faith on your account was present or not, and only a lawyer can advice you, what are the chances of winning, but in case of loosing, you'll have to add lawyer costs to your lost. If you have legal protection insurance, it's definitely worth to contact them, otherwise it's up to you if you need to fight or not.

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    Your failure to use that service might be interpreted as the lack of the good faith => unless Blackpain has some statistics to show that ~99% of legitimate watch buyers use that service, this seems like a huge stretch. Lots of people wouldn't even know such a service exists and just rely on their own gut judgement. I can certainly see myself buying such a watch and not bothering to check, assuming I trusted the seller. Mar 7, 2023 at 22:31
  • Danubian Sailor and @JonathanReez, please note that it's "Blancpain", not "Blackpain".
    – SQB
    Mar 8, 2023 at 19:06
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    @JonathanReez It would be litigated at trial whether checking that database is something a "reasonable person who buys and sells watches which cost 5 digits" would do. Such people may be presumed to be legally sophisticated, and any peculiarities of that market would be taken into account. Mar 8, 2023 at 22:59
  • @Harper-ReinstateMonica sure and like I said, if indeed 99% of legitimate buyers use the Watch verification service, it might be a slam dunk case. But we shouldn’t speculate about this here and accuse OP of being a thief. Mar 9, 2023 at 11:59
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The manufacturer isn't seizing it, but they're also not going to adjudicate this on their own. They're going to hold that watch in safe-keeping until a court of competent jurisdiction tells them to do something with it.

So somebody is going to have to file a lawsuit. The judge in that lawsuit is going to expect every party with a stake in the matter is served notice of the lawsuit. That will include the crime victim and the insurance company of the shop that sold it.

Everyone will make their argument, answers and replies will be written, and any arguments by any party will be cross-examined. The judge will rule, time will be given for dissatisfied parties to file appeals, and then the watch will go where the judge said, as will any other compensation that may be ordered.

Since some states provide good-faith buyers a limit to how far back theft claims can go, one of the things that will be litigated is which jurisdiction applies and whether the buyer or seller acted in good faith. That would be based on how a 'reasonable person' would behave given the norms of the high-end watch resale market, a sophisticated market by definition. These aren't cheap bicycles. I would expect things to be raised like

  • the use if available of stolen-watch databases.
  • the category of dealer the seller is in.
  • the price relative to norms and the degree to which a notably low price affects good faith.
  • the reason for buying such a watch from a non-shopkeeper if one could get the same thing from a reputable and insured shop at same price.
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  • What happens if no-one claims, presumably the manufacturer doesn't want to store it forever? Are they hoping that eventually they come into ownership of the watch via the same process of adverse possession and can use it for parts or? Mar 8, 2023 at 9:52
  • @ChrisFletcher the manufacturer knows who bought the watch initially and who reported it stolen.
    – Trish
    Mar 8, 2023 at 13:48
  • 1) Which court would hear the case - a Polish court (where OP lives), a Swiss court (where the manufacturer and watch are), or a German court (where the original owner presumably lives)? Or is there a court specifically to hear cross-country cases?
    – moonman239
    Mar 8, 2023 at 18:15
  • @moonman Heard of the case where a guy tried to buy a Harrier jet with Pepsi points? (Netflix series on it). Pepsi won because Pepsi sued first. Thus they got to choose the venue to one notoriously favorable to big business. Same applies here, you have 2 parties who want the watch, and whoever sues first chooses the venue they think is most favorable to them. The others can file a motion objecting to the venue, of course. Mar 8, 2023 at 22:37
  • @ChrisFletcher the manufacturer has one interest here: avoid a situation where they choose party X, send the watch to party X, and then a court of law tells them they should've chosen party Y. Mar 8, 2023 at 22:43

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