Swiss museum reviews collection for Nazi-looted art

Kunsthaus Zurich, one of Switzerland's top art museums, launched a new review on Tuesday aimed at clarifying whether any of its artworks might be cultural property looted by the Nazis.

Onlookers at
Onlookers at "Irene Cahen d`Anvers" 1880 - a masterpiece by Auguste Renoir, at the Kunsthaus Zurich. The gallery launched a new review aimed at clarifying whether any of its artworks might be cultural property looted by the Nazis. Photo by ARND WIEGMANN / AFP

Ann Demeester, who took over as the museum’s director in January, wants to tackle the thorny issue of provenance and art confiscated by Nazi Germany.

The museum said it wanted to see a national independent commission set up to investigate cultural property looted as a result of Nazi persecution.

In the meantime, it said it was setting up its own international commission of independent experts this year.

“Our overriding objective must always be to review professionally the origins of the works we hold,” said Philipp Hildebrand, chair of the Zurcher Kunstgesellschaft, the art association which owns the collection and oversees the museum.

“(We must) enable just and fair solutions where there are substantiated indications of cultural property confiscated as a result of Nazi persecution.

“We are aware that this will be a lengthy and complex process,” said Hildebrand, a former Swiss central bank chairman.

The museum said it would submit its own collection as well as new acquisitions to the provenance search.

“The provenance of works created prior to 1945 that changed hands between January 1933 and May 1945 will be reviewed,” the museum said, referring to the years of Nazi rule in neighbouring Germany.

Demeester, the Belgian former director of the Frans Hals Museum in the Netherlands, said Kunsthaus Zurich had to be proactive and transparent on
provenance research.

“As a museum, we bear a great social responsibility,” she said, adding: “Just as important as the research itself is what we do with the results.”

The museum faced criticism in 2021 when it opened a new wing to house the collection of arms dealer Emil Buhrle, who made his fortune during World War

The German-born industrialist became a naturalised Swiss citizen in 1937 and died in 1956, having amassed one of Europe’s most prestigious private art collections.

The Buhrle Foundation itself confirmed that 13 paintings he bought had been stolen by the Nazis from Jewish owners in France.

Following a series of court cases after World War II, Buhrle in the 1940s returned all 13 pieces to their rightful owners and then repurchased nine of them, the foundation said.

The collection was long displayed at a private museum on the outskirts of Zurich, but it was decided it should be moved following the spectacular 2008 heist of four 19th-century masterpieces.

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Mystery persists as missing Swiss paintings reappear

One of the Switzerland's top art museums announced Sunday the return of two paintings that went missing last year, refusing to provide details in a case still under investigation.

Mystery persists as missing Swiss paintings reappear

Kunsthaus Zurich offered in June 2023 a reward of 10,000 Swiss francs ($11,100) for information that could help it track one painting by Flemish painter Robert van den Hoecke and another by the Dutch Golden Age artist Dirck de Bray.

The small paintings disappeared when the Kunsthaus took down more than 700 works for cleaning and restoration after a fire broke out in August 2022.

But no trace of the two paintings could later be found.

On Sunday, the museum said only that its restoration experts had confirmed both paintings were in “good condition”, with no indication of how or when they turned up.

Because of ongoing police inquiries, “no further information will be released for the time being,” the Kunsthaus said.

Museum officials had alerted the missing works to the Art Loss Register, the world’s largest database of lost and stolen pieces.