Who is actually in power in Zurich? Is it the city and cantonal government – or is it the heirs and representatives of an art-loving arms dealer who made his living primarily from deliveries to Nazi Germany? A good month after the Zürcher Kunsthaus noticed its worldwide Extension building has opened, it is about nothing less than this question. The new building currently holds more than 200 works from the controversial Emil Bührle collection. Bührle, who died in 1956, was a German who later moved to Switzerland
The core of the converse: Bührle’s art collection is inconceivable without his opportunistic entrepreneurship and the unique opportunities that the persecution of Jewish collectors offered the art market. Will the Zürcher Kunsthaus, which has borrowed the 203 works from the Bührle Foundation, do justice to this problem? Many think: no.
Work-up? The family kept their archives tightly locked
Among the critics are now as weighty voices as those of the historian and Holocaust survivor Saul Friedländer, the Basel historian Georg Kreis or the Zurich Jakob Tanner, both recognized specialists in the history of Switzerland in the 20th century. The three experts were all members of the “Independent Expert Commission Switzerland – Second World War” (ICE). die Commission was supposed to process what had happened to the assets that had come to Switzerland during the war, and she had a special right of access to archives for this.
The Commission’s final report, published in 2002, is considered a milestone in the process of coming to terms with Switzerland’s involvement in National Socialism. However: The archive of the Bührle family remained closed to the researchers during their five years of work. Historian Georg Kreis makes 2010 publicthat he had requested access to the files of the art collection in 2001, the now deceased Bührle daughter Hortense. This had got rid of him by claiming that there were no more archives – demonstrably a false claim.
Now that the Bührle Collection has once again come into focus with its move to the Kunsthaus, the members of the commission are evidently enough. They went public a few days ago. “The current situation in Zurich is an affront to potential victims of looted property,” write the 32 former members and employees of the ICE. The researchers raise explosive questions. The most important: “Is it finally ensured that. All works of art that have been taken over in the Bührle Collection are clearly identified and assessed?”
Researchers insist on the suspicion: looted art
Jakob Tanner, one of the prominent signatories, explains in an interview with the SZ: “The origin of the works is the neuralgic point of the whole Bührle scandal. And the provenance research that is available on the collection is simply inadequate.” In other words: in the opinion of the researchers, it can still not be ruled out that among the works in the collection there is looted art or, above all, that there is a refugee property. The term has established itself for those emergency situations in which refugees were no longer directly threatened, but still not sold their goods free of constraints. A key word also for Switzerland, at that time the ultimate escape and transit country.
Historian Tanner and his ICE colleagues sharply criticize the fact that the Kunsthaus simply relies on provenance research by Lukas Gloor, the director of the Bührle Foundation. As the top manager of the collection, Tanner attests to Gloor not only bias, but also a “completely inadequate awareness of problems” with regard to Bührle’s art purchases during and immediately after the war.
In addition to the questions of origin, which researchers also criticize the accompanying documentation in the Kunsthaus. Here, too, Tanner describes what the museum presents about Bührle as a person and the context of the collection as “insufficient”. The scientists are therefore making three demands: First, the city and canton of Zurich should review provenance research, and the documentation room in the Kunsthaus should be revised by independent experts. And third, they are calling for an independent body for restitution issues in Switzerland, similar to the Limbach Commission in Germany.
Surprisingly, the city and canton of Zurich – which finance the Kunsthaus through subsidies – extended a few days after the ICE experts said with its own message nach: Support the demands of the scientists. And: When negotiating the new subsidy contract, the city will impose “obligations on the Bührle Collection” on the Kunsthaus. In other words: the central donor finally wants to put pressure on it – mind you, quickly 20 years after the plan to show the Bührle Collection in the Kunsthaus began to take shape.
Now one could say: Better late than never. But that in Zurich a few things got into serious trouble the interview clear, the foundation director Gloor last the Sunday look gave. He not only says the historically forgotten sentence that it should not be “that the collection becomes a memorial for Nazi persecution, that does not do justice to the pictures”. He also threatens to take the collection away from the Kunsthaus. “If the city of Zurich now dictates to the Kunsthaus how the Emil Bührle Collection is to be explained to the public, we can no longer participate.”
Now it has to show what is worth more to the Zurich authorities: an art collection with which one can decorate oneself internationally, or the honest handling of one’s own history and the associated respect for the victims of Nazi persecution.