More than three quarters of a century after the end of World War II, the Swiss parliament is debating a new framework for dealing with claims on art stolen by the Nazis or sold under duress.
This content was published on December 8, 2021 – 9:00 am
Text, Catherine Hickley, Picture Editor, Helen James
A parliamentary motion that the SPD member Jon Pult is supposed to make calls for “an independent commission to make recommendations in the event of the loss of cultural property due to Nazi persecution”. He reacts to strong criticism of the exhibition of the controversial collection of Emil Georg Bührle in an extension of the Kunsthaus in Zurich that opened in October.
Bührle made his fortune by selling arms to Germany during World War II, buying art looted by the Nazis and profiting from slave labor. The Bührle Foundation, which owns the 200 or so works exhibited in the museum, says none of them were stolen from Jews. However, plaintiffs say that without independent provenance research and a neutral body to assess claims about Nazi-looted art, they have no access to a fair trial.
“The history of the Emil Bührle Collection has shown that the topic is bigger and more explosive than people realized,” says Pult. “We need better instruments.” In his motivation for the application, Pult wrote that “Switzerland would do its part to come to terms with a dark chapter in history and to live up to its responsibility in dealing with cultural assets lost as a result of Nazi persecution” set up an independent body.
The motion, which he intends to submit to parliament next week, is supported by the Swiss Association of Israelites, an association of Jewish groups. Switzerland, which served as a hub for Nazi-looted art before and during World War II, is one of the 44 governments and organizations that advocated the non-binding Washington Principles in 1998. Following these principles, the governments agreed to encourage museums to conduct provenance research, identify art confiscated by the Nazis, and work with the original Jewish collectors and their heirs to find “just and fair solutions” for works lost due to persecution. They also agreed to set up “alternative dispute settlement mechanisms to resolve property issues”.
While France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have set up bodies to review claims to Nazi-looted art in museum collections, Switzerland has not yet done so 23 years after the Washington Principles were adopted. Last month, former members of the Bergier Commission – an international body founded in 1996 to investigate Switzerland’s financial affairs during World War II – described the Bührle situation as an “affront” to the victims and called for such a body to be set up. Pult says he has support from four parties in parliament for his proposal and that he hopes the government will approve it. “From a credible point of view, it is in Switzerland’s foreign policy interests,” he says. The initiative is “better late than never”.
Anne Webber, co-chair of the London Commission for Looted Art in Europe, says that Switzerland’s handling of Nazi-looted art has been “fickle and inconsistent” since the Washington Principles were approved. “She made regular commitments, but didn’t meet them,” said Webber. “The federal government promises fair and equitable solutions, but there is no framework for that.” The government’s position so far has been that there are not enough cases to warrant a panel.
But Benno Widmer, head of the museums and collections department at the Federal Office of Culture, said last month: “If the need increases due to increasing disputes, the demand for an external commission could be re-examined. ”
Supporters of a panel point out that there have already been several complaints about Nazi looted art in Switzerland. The Kunstmuseum Bern, for example, inherited the controversial treasure of the reclusive Cornelius Gurlitt. His father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, had served as a dealer and art buyer for Adolf Hitler in occupied Europe. 14 works from the estate have so far been restituted to the heirs of Jewish collectors whose art was stolen or sold under duress.
“This commission should have been set up 15 years ago,” says Andrea Raschèr, independent consultant who headed the Law and International Affairs department at the Federal Office of Culture from 1995 to 2006. A new body should, in his opinion, be “completely independent” and its members should be an optimal mix of lawyers, ethicists and historians. It is worth taking a closer look at both the German and British models. “
And, as Pult’s motion points out, the panel may have even more to do in the years to come. Swiss museums also examine their collections from the colonial era. Museums in other countries, including Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, have pledged to return items looted during a British raid on the royal kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria in 1897. Eight Swiss museums have pooled their resources to investigate the provenance of their own Beninese collections. The research project should be completed in summer 2022.
“We should check whether the commission could also make recommendations on cultural goods from other contexts, namely colonial ones,” says Pult’s request.
One of the most important points of criticism of the Swiss balance sheet is the distinction between Nazi-looted art and what museums call “refugee goods” – works that Jewish collectors were forced to sell, often to finance their escape from Nazi Germany. German museums use the collective term “losses through Nazi persecution” and treat all of these claims as potential restitution cases that must be weighed up individually.
In Switzerland, on the other hand, museums traditionally consider the purchase of “flight credit” to be legitimate. Art that was sold by Jews in financial difficulties because the Nazis had confiscated their property to finance their escape from Germany is not necessarily considered worthy of restitution. Pult’s motion suggests that a new body should not make this distinction.
Of course, there will be opposition to Pult’s plans. Christoph Blocher, art collector and former chairman of the far-right Swiss People’s Party, wrote an essay for the weekly magazine World week that the debate about the Bührle Collection is the symptom of a “morally corrupted society”. The calls for a panel, wrote Blocher, are about historians and lawyers who are hoping for lucrative contracts.
“I just don’t expect any rapid development because there will be great resistance from museums and private collectors,” says Olaf Ossmann, specialist lawyer for Nazi looted art based in Switzerland. “The museums will find all means to oppose this.”
Still, Webber from the Commission on Looted Art in Europe is not giving up hope. “It is to be hoped that the Gurlitt legacy from Bern and the Bührle situation in Zurich have sparked a touch paper so that the Swiss government takes up the issues comprehensively and addresses them with real determination and commitment,” she says. “The problem won’t go away until it happens.”