Book raises ques­tions about arms dealer’s Nazi-era art

The China Post - - ARTS - BY BEN SI­MON

How to de­fine Nazi-era “loot” is cen­tral to what could prove a touchy book launched Tues­day on the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing one of Europe’s most pres­ti­gious pri­vate art col­lec­tions, the im­pres­sion­ist works ac­quired by E.G. Buehrle.

The late in­dus­tri­al­ist amassed a for­tune selling weapons to both the Nazis and the Al­lies dur­ing World War II, wealth that helped buy sev­eral hun­dred art­works — some from Jews un­der threat — that will soon go on show at one of Switzer­land’s lead­ing mu­se­ums, the Kun­sthaus in Zurich.

The book, “Sch­warzbuch Buhrle” (“Buehrle Black Book”) of­fers a new chal­lenge — is it morally de­fen­si­ble to dis­play such paint­ings, es­pe­cially in a mu­seum that re­ceives public sub­si­dies?

“The city of Zurich and the Kun­sthaus have to be very care­ful how they are han­dling this col­lec­tion be­cause the dam­age for the rep­u­ta­tion of the city could be se­ri­ous,” co-au­thor Thomas Buomberger told AFP.

The Buehrle Foun­da­tion it­self con­firms that 13 paint­ings bought by the Ger­man-born in­dus­tri­al­ist, who later ac­quired Swiss cit­i­zen­ship, had been stolen by the Nazis from Jewish own­ers in France.

Fol­low­ing a se­ries of court cases af­ter the war, Buehrle re­turned all 13 pieces to their right­ful own­ers then re­pur­chased nine of them, the foun­da­tion said.

While these trans­ac­tions were aimed at giv­ing le­git­i­macy to the en­tire Zurich- based col­lec­tion, Buomberger’s re­search fo­cuses on pieces sold by Jews un­der duress, pos­si­bly while flee­ing for their lives.

For him, the term looted art should ap­ply to “all trans­ac­tions which would not have taken place if the Nazis had not been in power, which means of course works of art that were sold in Switzer­land by Jews who had to flee.”

If any paint­ing sold by an owner who faced im­mi­nent threat from the Nazis can be cat­e­gorised as war loot — as the Ger­man term for such pieces, Fluchtgut, or es­cape­goods, would in­di­cate — then much of the Buehrle col­lec­tion, and pieces across Switzer­land, fall un­der sus­pi­cion, Buomberger told AFP. “I am speak­ing of hun­dreds if not thou­sands of works of art,” he said.

Will­ing Seller?

Kun­sthaus spokesman Bjo­ern Quel­len­berg dis­agrees. Works sold un­der duress, he said, “can­not be re­garded from the same per­spec­tive as the looted art, not at all.”

He said the mu­seum had long dealt with the Buehrle Foun­da­tion and has tried to swiftly ad­dress any ques­tions about the works’ prove­nance. He also con­firmed that the Kun­sthaus plans to dis­play the en­tire Buehrle col­lec­tion when its new wing is com­pleted in 2020.

Talks on trans­fer­ring the paint­ings to the mu­seum be­gan in 2002 but ac­cel­er­ated af­ter a spec­tac­u­lar 2008 heist in which men dis­guised in ski masks stole four 19th-cen­tury mas­ter­pieces at the Buehrle Foun­da­tion, a theft that shocked the coun­try.

But Buomberger pointed to one piece that he said high­lighted out­stand­ing ques­tions — “La Sul­tane” by Eduoard Manet, which his re­search showed had been owned by a man named Max Sil­ber­berg who died at Auschwitz.

He in­sisted there was a moral obli­ga­tion to se­ri­ously in­ves­ti­gate the cir­cum­stances that led Sil­ber­berg to sell. “It is not some­thing to be done if you have time and money. It is re­ally a duty to ful­fill.”

For the mu­seum spokesman, Buomberger has set im­pos­si­ble cri­te­ria.

“The Fluchtgut does not fall un­der con­ven­tion. It’s not a term which can be legally em­ployed or legally bind­ing to any­body,” Quel­len­berg told AFP.

Even the Washington Prin­ci­ples, guide­lines signed in 1998 by Ger­many and more than 40 other coun­tries on deal­ing with art stolen in World War II, speaks specif­i­cally about works “con­fis­cated by the Nazis” not art sold by Jews and other per­se­cuted peo­ple who had to es­cape, he said.

“The ac­cu­sa­tions from Mr. Buomberger, they don’t have a point, re­ally,” said Quel­len­berg.

With Wealth Comes ‘shad­ows’

Buomberger’s book also delves into the Buehrle fam­ily history, not only E.G.’s lu­cra­tive deal­ings with both sides dur­ing the war but also the maligned pol­i­tics of his son, Di­eter.

Af­ter the fa­ther died sud­denly in 1956, Di­eter formed a par­tic­u­larly close re­la­tion­ship with apartheid South Africa as he looked to ex­pand busi­ness out­side Europe.

P.W. Botha, the for­mer South African pres­i­dent and un­re­lent­ing de­fender of white mi­nor­ity rule, gave Di­eter an honor for “mer­i­to­ri­ous ser­vice.”

“This back­ground is also im­por­tant,” said Buomberger.

Quel­len­berg said such bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tails were not the Kun­sthaus’s con­cern.

“We mainly fo­cus on the works. We do not deal with the fam­ily history at all ... No mat­ter where you look in the world, if you have a big fam­ily name, even the Rock­e­fellers, you never say their money was al­ways clean,” he told AFP.

“So, in the art world, as well as ev­ery­where there is wealth, there are some shad­ows.”


This file hand­out photo re­leased by the Buehlre Col­lec­tion Foun­da­tion in Geneva on Nov. 1, 2012 shows a re­pro­duc­tion of French pain­ter Claude Monet’s mas­ter­piece en­ti­tled “Poppy Field Near Vetheuil.”

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