Switzerland
SwitzerlandFlash 90

The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG/FCSI) has denounced a famous private Swiss art collection, accusing it of having origins in works of art stolen by the Nazis from Jewish owners.

SIG/FCSI alleged that the Kunsthaus Zürich and the E.G. Bührle Collection Foundation had taken a “partly irritating and partly frightening” tone about the origins of its collection, even while confirming that 13 of its paintings had been stolen by the Nazis from French Jews.

After multiple post-war court cases, E.G. Bührle – a German industrialist who rose to become Switzerland's wealthiest man after supplying weapons to the Nazis – returned all 13 paintings to their Jewish owners, and repurchased nine of them, the foundation said.

However, there have been suspicions for decades about the origins of other priceless works in the collection, including valuable pieces by Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin and Picasso.

The collection was kept at a small private museum in the Zurich suburbs for years but in the last decade was moved after an infamous 2008 theft of four 19th century paintings.

A press conference held this week by the foundation in charge of the collection defending itself against criticism was denounced by SIG/FCSI in a statement saying that it showed a suspect reading of history.

“The representatives of the Kunsthaus and the Bührle Foundation defended their previous position with regard to the documentation room and the provenance research of the collection, which in their own opinion is sufficient,” SIG/FCSI said. “Particularly difficult to understand is the insistence on a view of history that takes no account whatsoever of the findings of the Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland-Second World War, the so-called “Bergier Commission.”

According to the organization, the collection has a “responsibility they indirectly assumed when Switzerland co-signed the Washington Declaration in 1998 and the Terezín Declaration in 2009.”

“These state precisely that the provenance of each individual case must be clarified so that fair and just solutions can be found with regard to the restitution or compensation of works of art. Here it is essential that the Kunsthaus Zürich follows the example of the Bern Art Museum and recognizes ‘fugitive property’ as ‘cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution.’”

While welcoming the fact that the collection has agreed to a demand that an independent panel of experts examine the provenance of its works of art, they criticized the fact that in their view the overseers of the collection are not prepared to move away from their previous position.

“The SIG is currently strongly committed to the implementation of a parliamentary motion calling for an independent national commission for cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution. The debate about the Bührle collection shows that the establishment of such a commission is absolutely necessary,” said SIG/FCSI.

They added: “In the future, each individual case must be examined and, in the case of justified claims, restitution must be made accordingly. Just as the international agreements provide for.”