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Swiss Museum Confronts Provenance Issues, Withdraws Artworks Amidst Investigation

Saturday 15 June 2024 - 10:55
Swiss Museum Confronts Provenance Issues, Withdraws Artworks Amidst Investigation

In a significant step toward addressing the lingering issues of Nazi-looted art, Kunsthaus Zurich, one of Switzerland's premier art museums, has decided to withdraw five paintings from its exhibition. This decision comes as the museum investigates the potential unlawful seizure of these artworks during the Nazi era.

The paintings in question are part of the Emil Bührle Collection, named after a German-born arms dealer who profited immensely during World War II by supplying weapons to the Nazis. The collection has long been shadowed by doubts regarding the origins of its pieces.

This move follows the recent publication of new guidelines intended to address the vast array of cultural artifacts that have not yet been returned to their rightful owners. The museum's proactive approach underscores the evolving standards and the international community's efforts to rectify historical injustices.

The masterpieces under scrutiny include works by some of the most illustrious artists in history: Claude Monet's "Jardin de Monet à Giverny," Gustave Courbet's "Portrait of the Sculptor Louis-Joseph," Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's "Georges-Henri Manuel," Vincent van Gogh's "The Old Tower," and Paul Gauguin's "La route montante."

In a statement, the Emil Bührle Collection’s foundation board reaffirmed its dedication to "seeking a fair and equitable solution for these works with the legal successors of the former owners, following best practices."

Additionally, Edouard Manet's "La Sultane" from the same collection is under separate scrutiny. Although the foundation maintains that the new guidelines do not apply to this particular painting, it acknowledged the tragic history of its previous owner, Max Silberberg. Silberberg, a German Jewish industrialist, had his extensive art collection forcibly auctioned by the Nazis and is believed to have perished in Auschwitz. The foundation has expressed its readiness to offer a financial contribution to Silberberg's estate as a gesture of respect for his tragic fate. However, debate persists about whether Silberberg sold "La Sultane" willingly for financial reasons or was coerced.

Earlier this year, over 20 countries, including Switzerland, agreed to adopt new best practices from the US State Department on handling Nazi-looted art. These guidelines were introduced to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1998 Washington Conference Principles, which established a framework to facilitate the restitution of art stolen or forcibly sold during the Nazi era.

These principles are crucial for families seeking to reclaim looted art, especially as Swiss law currently prevents legal claims for restitution or compensation for works from the Bührle collection due to statutes of limitations.

As Kunsthaus Zurich navigates the complexities of these provenance concerns, it aligns itself with a growing number of institutions and governments dedicated to resolving the unresolved legacy of Nazi-looted art. This commitment is a testament to the ongoing pursuit of justice for the families whose cultural heritage was unjustly taken.

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