By Nikki Vafai
In September of 2022, the Swiss Federal Council, the executive body of the federal government of the Swiss Confederation, voted to create an independent commission on Nazi looted art. The independent expert commission’s purpose is to make recommendations regarding the return of “cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution.”
The proposal to create this commission was the by-product of ongoing national debate and most recently criticism sparked by the long-term loan display of the Emil G. Bührle collection in the newly opened wing of the Kunsthaus Zürich. Emil G. Bührle (1890-1956) was a German-born art collector, patron, and arms manufacturer. Bührle used slave and child labor in his factories to manufacture weapons and sold these arms to the Nazi regime. With his rapidly growing wealth, during his lifetime, Bührle purchased several works that were looted from Jewish families. As an aficionado of the arts, Bührle did contribute greatly to Kunsthaus Zürich. Bührle was a member of Kunsthaus Zürich’s collection committee, financed an exhibition wing, and in 1952, he donated two large Monet water-lily paintings to the museum. After his death, Bührle’s heirs set up a foundation, the Emil Bührle Collection, which oversees display of a third of the works he collected.
The Emil Bührle Collection claims that none of the items on display were looted from Jewish individuals. However, there are accusations that the provenance of some of the works in the collection may have been whitewashed and that the collection may still include Nazi looted art. The newly installed display of the Emil G. Bührle collection in Kunsthaus Zürich as of 2021 resulted in an online petition, calling for more transparency in the museum’s Bührle displays. The exhibition also drew criticism from former members of the Bergier Commission. The Bergier Commission was an international panel of scholars formed by the Swiss Federal Assembly in 1996 to research Swiss financial dealings before, during, and after the Second World War. The commission dissolved in 2001. Due to the vast amount of criticism, the city of Zürich pledged to conduct an independent investigation of the Bührle Foundation’s provenance research and to work with Kunsthaus Zürich to develop the museum’s Bührle displays.
CREATION OF THE INDEPENDENT COMMISSION
In response to the Bührle controversy and the resulting public pressure, lawmaker Jon Pult submitted a motion in December of 2021, urging parliament to set up an independent commission to assess claims for “cultural property lost as a result of Nazi persecution.” Such a commission would follow in suit of only a handful of countries, Germany, Austria, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, which have created independent panels to make recommendations and assess claims for Nazi-looted art.
In February of 2022, the Swiss Federal Council partially approved a parliamentary motion to establish the independent expert commission to make recommendations on the returning cultural property lost in the aftermath of Nazi persecution. However, concerns were raised with the use of the term “cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution.” Pult expressed concern that the approved but modified motion did not create a strict distinction between “looted art”—art stolen by the Nazis, and “escapee art”—works that Jewish people were forced to sell under duress at low prices. The Swiss Federation of Jewish communities (SIG/FCSI) and the Platform of Liberal Jews in Switzerland (PLJS) joined in Pult’s concerns and they continue to demand the use of the term “Nazi-confiscated cultural property.” The SIG/FCSI and PLJS have also expressed disappointment in the rejection of their proposed framework conditions.
In September, following the National Council of Switzerland (the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Switzerland), the Council of States of Switzerland (the upper house), adopted a corresponding motion on Monday. However, the motion was shortened and six guidelines for the design of the commission were deleted. The Council of States also decided to establish a national database to collect and research the provenance of artworks traded, collected, or exhibited in Switzerland. Due to the changes to the motion, it must go back to the National Council before the commission can be set up by the Swiss Federal Council.
About the Author: Nikki Vafai is a law student at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and holds a B.A. in International Affairs and Art History from the George Washington University. Nikki is a 2022 fall legal intern at the Center for Art Law.