The controversial collection linked to Nazi confiscations on display at the largest museum in Zurich

The controversial collection linked to Nazi confiscations on display at the largest museum in Zurich
The controversial collection linked to Nazi confiscations on display at the largest museum in Zurich

In the 1980s, 31 works by Swiss artist Miriam Cahn were bought by the largest public museum in Switzerland, the Kunsthaus in Zurich. Last December, Cahn asked the museum to withdraw his works, due to the institution’s decision to exhibit a highly controversial collection, that of Emil Georg Bührle. Bührle made his fortune by selling weapons to Nazi Germany and his collection includes works of art of dubious origin, some of which were confiscated or stolen by the dictatorship from Jewish families and collectors during World War II.

Cahn’s request, which among other things he would like to be able to repurchase his works, has been reported by various international newspapers, also because it is linked to an issue that is regularly discussed: the social responsibility of museums.

Miriam Cahn is an internationally renowned artist: she is Jewish, she is 72 years old and she is politically and artistically active above all in the feminist movement. His works are preserved in the largest institutions in the world, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at the Tate in London, at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, for example, and are currently also exhibited at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris, inaugurated. in May 2021 by François Pinault.

In late December, Cahn wrote an open letter on Tachles, the weekly of the Swiss Jewish community, in which it said that the “reputation of the museum” in Zurich had been “tarnished” by the decision to exhibit the Bührle collection. “That this collection is shown in a private setting is not my problem. But in a public museum, it’s not ethical ». Cahn therefore requested the withdrawal of his works from the Kunsthaus and asked to be able to buy them back at the original price.

Before Miriam Cahn’s letter, some thirty historians had in turn publicly condemned the integration of the Bührle collection into the Kunsthaus.

The Bührle collection is highly controversial. Last year the results of a study on its origin were presented which had been commissioned by the Canton of Zurich precisely in view of the exhibition of the collection in a new wing of the public museum in Zurich.

During the Second World War, Emil Bührle, born in 1890 and died in 1956, became the richest man in Switzerland thanks to the sale of arms. He initially sold guns to the Allies for around 60 million francs, then, after the defeat of France, he supplied Nazi Germany with weapons for around 540 million francs. “The establishment of his world-class art collection was made possible thanks to the immense fortune that Bührle amassed through the export of weapons before, during and after the Second World War,” explained the historian of the University of Zurich. Matthieu Leimgruber, author of the study.

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Bührle’s first acquisitions date back to the 1920s, but it was in the late 1930s that he began to compose his collection, at a time when the expropriations and racial persecutions of the Nazi regime had a great impact on the art market. Part of the collection, Bührle bought it from the Swiss Fischer gallery famous for marketing many works looted to Jews and whose owner, in 1939, acted as auctioneer at the famous auction of “degenerate art”, removed from German museums by the dictatorship.

In total, Bührle bought 600 works for 39 million francs. In 1960 his heirs created a foundation that contained 200, that is, the paintings later acquired by the Kunsthaus museum in Zurich.

According to several scholars, Emil Bührle was not a Nazi, but he did business with the Nazi regime and took advantage of the persecution of the Jews to put together his collection, which includes works by Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet , Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Georges Seurat, Alfred Sisley, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh. Many of the works that Bührle bought, following some requests and after the courts decreed their provenance, were returned to the legitimate owners.

According to experts, however, a number of dubious works are still part of the collection.

The French newspaper The world, who recently told the story of Miriam Cahn, explained how the premise of her request, as well as that of investigating the origin of the works in the museums and returning those seized from the persecuted of the regime, is in line with the principles established in 1998 at the end of the Washington Conference on art confiscated by the Nazis: non-binding principles, but established to encourage and support research and promote the return of confiscated works.

So far, following the Washington Conference, only five countries (Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands) have set up national committees to determine the provenance of suspicious works of art. But second Deutche Welle, out of about 600,000 works of art stolen by the Nazis, more than 100,000 have never been returned. Some are still kept in museums and private collections throughout Europe and beyond, while others are at the center of legal disputes.

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Despite the criticisms received, the Kunsthaus in Zurich defended its choice; with respect to Miriam Cahn’s request to buy back her works at the original price, much lower than the current one, she has not yet responded.

However, the decision of the Kunsthaus in Zurich seems to go in the opposite direction to that adopted in recent years by several other museums. Faced with a similar controversy, and always linked to questions of provenance, the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, for example, had made a completely different choice. Last December the museum decided to give up some forty confiscated or dubious works: they were part of a highly controversial collection inherited in 2014 by Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father was an art dealer linked to Nazi Germany.

In general, he writes The world, the social responsibility of museums and cultural institutions, and therefore the provenance of the collections but also the provenance of the private money that finances the museums, are at the center of a wide international debate, which has concrete consequences.

For years, the artist and photographer Nan Goldin has denounced, for example, the cases of “toxic philanthropy” that have to do with the pharmaceutical company owned by the Sackler family, which finances museums and which produces Oxycontin, an opiate held responsible of about 500 thousand deaths in the United States and on which Goldin herself was dependent. His commitment has recently led to a result: in December 2021, the Metropolitan Museum in New York announced that it will remove the Sackler family plaques from seven exhibition spaces.

Artists and activists Isabelle Fremeaux and John Jordan have in turn brought an end to London’s Tate Modern partnership with British Petroleum.

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