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Provenance research at the Kunsthaus Zürich. Research Associate Joachim Sieber at the Open Day 2019. Photo © Caroline Minjolle

Provenance research aims to establish and make public the origins and ownership of all works in the collection right back to when they were created. It focuses in particular on works that changed hands between 1933 and 1945. Between the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933 and the end of the Second World War twelve years later, a large number of works of art, chiefly owned by Jewish people, were illegally confiscated both in Germany and in the annexed and occupied countries and territories. This is referred to as Nazi-looted art.

The distinctions between ‘looted art’, ‘degenerate art’, ‘forced sales’ and ‘flight assets’ are central to a well-founded and nuanced discussion of the issue of restitution.

Key concepts in provenance research

Looted art

‘Looted art’ refers to cultural property removed from private ownership by the National Socialists in the context of persecution. It includes works of art that were confiscated from their (predominantly Jewish) owners. Looted art is covered by the Washington Conference Principles of 1998, which impose a requirement to seek just and fair solutions.

Degenerate art

So-called ‘degenerate art’ is not covered by the Washington Conference Principles. The term refers to works of art that were removed from state museums by the Nazis and subsequently either destroyed or sold on the international art market.

Since it involved the disposal of art viewed as undesirable that was owned by the state, the law on the seizure of degenerate art was not repealed by the Allies after the war. Accordingly, the sales made at the time were not reversed after the conflict, and for this reason it is still widely assumed that restitution is not required.

Forced sales

‘Forced sales’ are sales ordered by the Nazis either backed by direct threats or on the pretext of one of the odious Nuremberg Laws, at below the market price or with the owners either not receiving the proceeds or having them confiscated. Today, such items are normally treated in the same way as Nazi-looted art.

Flight assets

‘Flight assets’ are assets removed by their owners to a place of safety abroad, and over which those owners retained full control. Consequently, they are not covered by the Washington Conference Principles. As the Federal Office of Culture makes clear in its glossary of Nazi-looted art, for the Swiss Confederation ‘(…) in accordance with the Washington Principles, the key question is whether a transfer or change of ownership between 1933 and 1944 in effect amounted to a confiscation. Where this was the case, ‘flight assets’ or ‘flight art’ may also constitute Nazi-looted art within the meaning of the Washington Principles.’ The Kunsthaus shares this view.

Ethical guidelines

In concert with the Federal Office of Culture, the Kunsthaus Zürich recognizes the Code of Ethics for Museums issued by the International Council of Museums and the Washington Principles of 1998 in relation to works of art confiscated by the National Socialists.

Clarity and transparency

To date, we have not identified any cases in which the Kunsthaus itself purchased looted art. Recently, however, there have been two instances in which donations to the Kunsthaus were found to contain Nazi-looted art. In 2009, when it became clear that two works forming part of a major donation of paintings by Albert von Keller were looted art, the Kunsthaus reacted immediately. It consulted with the heirs of the works’ owners at the time they were looted, and a just and fair solution was reached that allowed both paintings to remain at the Kunsthaus.

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Albert Keller, Adele von Le-Suire, stehend, about 1887, Kunsthaus Zürich, in 1939 deprived from Alfred Sommerguth by the Nazis, donated by his heirs and Hannelore Müller in 2010

A just and fair solution

In 2009, the Kunsthaus staged an exhibition on the work of Albert von Keller to mark a major gift of his paintings from the estate of the Zurich art collector Oskar A. Müller in 2007. On the basis of the catalogue compiled for the exhibition, external experts established that one of the paintings in the gift, ‘Madame la Suire’, could be looted art. Once owned by the Jewish art collector Alfred Sommerguth, the work turned out to have been compulsorily auctioned by the Nazi authorities in Berlin a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War. The Kunsthaus reviewed the evidence and, when the suspicions were confirmed, offered to return the work to the original owners’ heirs or purchase it from them. However, the heirs generously decided to donate the oil painting to the Kunsthaus, merely requesting that a notice to this effect be placed by the work when it is exhibited.

Alfred von Keller’s ‘Nude on a Beach / Evening’, which was stolen from the collection of Jean and Ida Baer by the Nazis in 1940, was also affected. In 2012, following an agreement involving the heirs and the gift of Hannelore Müller, it was acquired by the Kunsthaus.

Our principles in provenance research

The role of provenance research in collection management

As far back as the 1980s the Kunsthaus investigated the provenance of all the main works in its collection of paintings and sculptures that were acquired between the early 1930s and the 1950s. The in-depth research was conducted on the basis of the purchase documentation, which was preserved in its entirety.

No instances of dubious provenance were identified. Those acting on behalf of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft during the period of Nazi rule were clearly aware of the exceptional political situation and the associated risks, and on a number of occasions the Kunsthaus was able to assist collectors who were under threat.

The Kunstgesellschaft acted responsibly, and was careful not to purchase works whose origins seemed in any way problematic.

Provenances published and open to inspection

The files were reviewed once again when the main catalogue of paintings and sculptures was being compiled between 2002 and 2007, with a particular focus on the works donated to the Kunsthaus since the 1950s. This practice continues to this day. The documented provenances of the works have been published in the main catalogue and online. They are also being progressively added to the online collection, which has been developed with support from the Federal Office of Culture.

Collection of Prints and Drawings research project 2017–2019

Supported by a grant from the Federal Office of Culture, this project aimed to research and make public the provenances of all new acquisitions made by the Collection of Prints and Drawings from 1933 to 1950. During this period, some 10,000 works on paper were donated to or acquired by the Collection. The research project focused on some 3,900 items.

None of the works showed clear evidence of having changed hands due to confiscation and therefore being Nazi-looted art. Approximately two thirds of the provenances can be classified as unproblematic and complete, or as incomplete but without any indication of questionable changes of ownership. In the remaining cases the previous owner at least was successfully identified, but there is a need for further research.

The results can be seen in our list of works (in German) and will be progressively published in the online collection.

List of works artists A–L
List of works artists M–Z

Access to the archives and research enquiries

The Kunsthaus responds to all provenance-related enquiries with due care. The comprehensive and well-organized archival fonds of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft up to 1949 are publicly accessible to anyone interested in the Kunsthaus library.

If it were to be shown that the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft holds a work that was removed from a previous owner as part of the Nazi persecution between 1933 and 1945, efforts would be made to achieve a just and fair solution with that owner’s legal successors in accordance with the Washington Principles.

Contact: joachim.sieber@kunsthaus.ch, +41 44 253 85 47

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Claude Monet, L’homme à l’ombrelle, 1865/1867, Kunsthaus Zürich

‘Flight assets’? Three typical cases

The case Claude Monet

Carl Sachs transferred his collection to the Kunsthaus Zürich in a number of stages during 1933 and 1934. In summer 1933, an impromptu exhibition entitled ‘French Painting of the 19th Century’ was staged here at short notice, with the obvious aim of facilitating the unobtrusive evacuation of collections by their German Jewish owners. Like the estate of the ‘degenerate’ Lovis Corinth, some of these works remained in the Kunsthaus stores and were shipped overseas by their owners during the late 1930s. They included Carl Sachs’s collection, which he sent away in 1939. Sachs also took the opportunity to sell the early painting by Claude Monet entitled ‘Portrait de Victor Jacquemont au parasol’ (1865/67) to the Kunsthaus for a considerable sum.

Neither Carl Sachs nor his legal successors subsequently disputed the Kunsthaus’s legal ownership of this painting.

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Vincent van Gogh, Roses trémières, 1886, Kunsthaus Zürich

‘Flight assets’? Three typical cases

The case Vincent van Gogh

‘Hollyhocks’ (1886) by Vincent van Gogh was also exhibited in the 1933 ‘French Painting of the 19th Century’ exhibition, which was staged with the obvious aim of facilitating the unobtrusive evacuation of collections by their German Jewish owners. The painting did not return to Germany after the exhibition but was instead sent on the lender’s behalf to Amsterdam, to which the Cassirer art dealership had since moved its premises. The work’s owner, Tilla Durieux, lived in Italy. In 1937 Cassirer offered to sell the painting to the Kunsthaus on her behalf, and it was purchased at a price set by her.

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Edvard Munch, Musik auf der Karl Johan Strasse, 1889, Kunsthaus Zürich

‘Flight assets’? Three typical cases

The case Edvard Munch

Curt Glaser, Director of the Art Library in Berlin who also worked in the latter’s Museum of Prints and Drawings, wrote the first monograph in German on Edvard Munch and had shared Kunsthaus Director Wilhelm Wartmann’s admiration for the Norwegian artist since the early 1920s. An art historian whose interests encompassed many areas, he began selling paintings by Munch as early as the late 1920s. When he emigrated to Switzerland, he deposited part of his collection with the Kunsthaus.

Glaser donated ‘Music on Karl Johan Street’ (1889) to the National Gallery in Berlin at the start of 1933 in memory of his first wife. As the agreed conditions were not adhered to under the Nazis, he demanded the picture back and it was sent to the Kunsthaus for him in 1939. In 1941, shortly before Glaser emigrated to the US, Wartmann asked him if he would consider selling ‘Music on Karl Johan Street’ to the Kunsthaus. Settling on a price proved difficult. Glaser, who was interested in placing the painting with a museum, asked for CHF 15,000, the sum he had paid for it himself. By this time, however, the market had deteriorated considerably, and a price of CHF 12,000 was agreed – the largest sum that the Kunsthaus paid at any point between 1933 and 1945 for a work by a living artist. A key late work by Klee acquired in the same year, ‘Überschach’ from 1937, cost CHF 5,000, while the following year Picasso’s 1905 work ‘Hurdy-Gurdy Player with Boy’ was purchased for CHF 10,000.

In-depth research conducted in association with the Munch Museum in Oslo has established that the price paid was in line with the market value at the time. The correspondence between the two colleagues has been preserved, and reveals the care and respect with which the acquisition was handled. Glaser sold a further painting by Munch to the Kunsthaus two years later, and his widow sold two more to the museum after the war. This is testimony to the Glasers’ enduring regard for the Kunsthaus and ensured that the vast majority of their Munch paintings remained together in a publicly accessible collection.

This group of related works is now being exhibited together at the Kunsthaus, in a display that emphasizes and bears witness to the Glasers’ importance as collectors.