Kunsthaus Zürich and the E.G. Bührle Collection came up with a resolute defence of their position at a media conference, but it suggested that their awareness of history was somewhat questionable. For the SIG, the rather insensitive new stance of the Kunsthaus and the Collection is annoying and, in parts, shocking.
Kunsthaus Zürich and the E.G. Bührle Collection held a media conference yesterday at which they gave their views on the disputed collection. Representatives of the museum and the Bührle Collection defended their previous position with regard to the document room and the research into the provenance of the works in the Collection, which they regard to be satisfactory. At the same time, their presentation of the historical facts was in places very distorted. The SIG is shocked by this unhelpful and intransigent stance, the questionable historical awareness and the obvious lack of sensitivity.
Inadequate sense of historical responsibility
It is particularly hard to understand the insistence on a view of history that fails to take any account whatsoever of the findings of the Bergier Commission, the group of experts established to report on Switzerland and the Second World War. These include statements that detail the role of Switzerland as a significant transport hub for looted artworks and «Fluchtgut» – art transferred to Switzerland by Jewish owners fleeing Nazi persecution. It is common knowledge and a matter of historical record that the Swiss state did not provide adequate safety and protection for Jews and other minorities in Switzerland during the Second World War and was also often unable to prevent them from being killed in Nazi-occupied countries. Added to these are the thousands of people attempting to escape persecution who were turned away at the Swiss borders, often to face certain death as a result. This makes «Fluchtgut» even more significant in Switzerland, and it is essential that each individual artwork be investigated for its provenance, as is the case with looted art.
Representatives of Kunsthaus Zurich and the Bührle Collection are similarly unaware of the responsibility they indirectly assumed when Switzerland became a joint signatory of the Washington Conference Principles in 1998 and the Terezin Declaration in 2009. These resolutions state that the provenance of every individual work must be clarified so that fair and just solutions can be found regarding their return or the provision of compensation. It is essential that Kunsthaus Zürich follows the example set by the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern and also recognises «Fluchtgut» as Nazi-confiscated cultural assets.
Calls for panel of experts to evaluate the Bührle Collection
It is welcome that the Zurich Art Society as trustee of the Bührle Collection is finally responding to widespread calls to set up an independent panel of experts to investigate the origins of the paintings. However, this will only succeed if the representatives of Kunsthaus Zürich and the Bührle Collection are willing to depart from their current inflexible position and their very particular interpretation of history.
In addition, the prospect was also held out of a solution being found that would allow at least part of the loan contract between the Art Society and the Bührle Collection to be made public in the new year. This would go some way to restoring confidence in the institutions involved and combined with the establishment of an independent panel of experts would mean two of the SIG’s demands were met.
Commission for Nazi-confiscated cultural assets is essential
The SIG is currently backing the implementation of a parliamentary motion calling for a national commission for Nazi-confiscated cultural assets. The debate surrounding the Bührle Collection shows how pressing the need for such a commission is. In future, each individual case must be checked and proper compensation made for justified claims – exactly as envisaged by the international agreements.