Neutral Haven And A Willing Wartime Art Market

Switzerland, the neutral neighbor of Nazi Germany, surrounded by borders with Austria, Italy, and Vichy France, was a magnet for assets from the rise of Hitler until the end of World War II. Swiss bank accounts held funds for many Jewish families justifiably worried about their money being confiscated or taxed away from them. The Swiss art market was extremely active, and at war's end, when the Allies' MFA&A (Office of Monuments, Arts and Archives) got little or no cooperation from Swiss authorities, they sent Douglas Cooper, a British officer, to investigate the role played by Swiss nationals in Nazi art looting. In just a few weeks he turned up many looted works of art and evidence of more that passed through the hands of fifteen art dealers there.

Modern works of art confiscated in 1940 from French Jews such as Alphonse Kann and Paul Rosenberg were traded at the Nazis' art depot in Paris for old masters and other works acceptable to the Nazis' culturally determined art preferences. The dealers who made these documented "exchanges" included Hans Wendland, who sold them in Switzerland, often to Theodor Fischer. In just one example, a number of works by masters such as Corot, Degas, and Manet that had been looted from Kann and the Galerie Paul Rosenberg were sold to Emil G. Bührle, the manufacturer of armaments who did a huge business with the Third Reich from his office in Zurich. Bührle maintained, even to Paul Rosenberg's face after the war, that he'd bought them in good faith without suspecting that they had been looted (although the Nazi stamps were on the backs of some Rosenberg pictures). He would give them back only if Fischer refunded the purchase price. After the war, Paul Rosenberg had to bring a lawsuit in Lausanne against Bührle, Fischer, and others to win a judgment to regain his stolen paintings, some of which he then sold to the same collectors, this time benefiting from their sale.

Switzerland has participated in the conferences in Washington, D.C., Vilnius, and Prague where participants, including Switzerland, pledged cooperation when art claims would be brought to their national museums. Its own Bergier Commission (ICE), formed by the government in 1996, comprised of one hundred researchers, published a book on "flight assets" Fluchtgut -- Raubgut in 2001. Despite a general belief that Holocaust looted art exists in quantity in public and private collections in Switzerland, the number of works restituted from Switzerland in recent years can be counted on the fingers.

Madame Camus at the Piano (1869)

Edgar Degas, Madame Camus at the Piano (1869)
B�hrle Collection, Zurich. Taken from Alphonse Kann's home near Paris, traded by the Nazis, purchased by Emil B�hrle, returned to Kann's heirs in 1949, and purchased from them in 1951.

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