Deposits. A form of translocation of cultural assets and its significance for Swiss museums (1933 –1960), Conference, Kunstmuseum Bern, 9-10 September 2021

Events and Conferences

In 2012 the so-called ‘Gurlitt Art Trove” brought the subject of Nazi-looted art powerfully back into the public eye. When the Kunstmuseum Bern accepted the bequest of Cornelius Gurlitt, the topic of the art trade and the treatment of Nazi-looted art by museums in Switzerland and elsewhere once again became a subject of debate, leading to a redefinition of contemporary research into collecting and provenance, in terms of both form and content; questions were asked about the circulation and acquisition of artefacts, and fundamental principles of museum ethics and law. The role of museums and the involvement of senior staff in the translocation of artistic and cultural assets following the National Socialist persecution and the artistic and cultural thefts that it entailed also remains a desideratum of research.

Provenance research is generally focused upon individual works or groups of collections, with the aim of reconstructing their individual changes of ownership and the circumstances of their displacement. On the other hand, a sense of historical judgement is required when it comes to assessing the evidence. Often the appraisal of a situation necessarily requires an understanding of the historical context or the character of those involved. We would like to analyse relationships between institutions, their staff and collectors within the framework of a conference and with reference to a specific category of the translocation of cultural assets in the period between 1933 and 1945: art works that have been translocated as deposits in museums outside German territory.

In the past the examination of permanent loans from the period between 1933 and 1945 was concentrated on so-called Fluchtgut (‘flight assets’).[1] At the same time questions about the museum as a player in exchange with dealers, collectors and emigrants were little more than hinted at. The relationships between museums, collectors and the art trade, the interactions between political circumstances and individual possibilities for action were not taken into account: how were acquisitions made, how were negotiations with the art trade undertaken and customs duties avoided through the form of deposits and museum exhibits? While the names of well-known depositors are a frequent subject of provenance research, lectures and publications, the issue of the large number of deposits in Swiss museums alone has never been addressed. Neither has there been a comparative investigation into deposits in Swiss and other museums outside German territory in the period between 1933 and 1945

The comparative approach addresses the following subject areas:

 Structures, mechanisms and motivation: What reasons prompted the lender to send the art works abroad? What motives led the institutional players to accept or reject deposits? Who might have acted as agents? How are local decisions made, and how do they manifest themselves nationally and internationally?

 The museum as a place of exile? What are the connections between translocation, anti-Semitic propaganda, legal discrimination and actual persecution? What was the legal relationship between persecuted depositors and Swiss institutions?

 Presence and consequences: Were the loaned works present in the institutions and displayed to the public? What material form do deposits assume, and what is their relevance today? What deposits were made in the post-war period and to what extent do they contribute to the definition of museum profiles even in the present day? What historical and political narratives are involved?

Aside from issues relating to the history of institutions and collecting, we are seeking to broaden case-specific national internal perspectives in terms of a mutually interconnected transnational history of relationships, and determine the spheres of activity of supporting networks of museum staff, collectors and dealers. Which collectors moved their art collections to Switzerland and which to other countries? What was the role of dealers, politicians or artists as agents in the divestiture or translocation of works transported abroad? What political and legal factors affect the movement of works in or out of the country? Where are the borderlines drawn between protection and appreciation in value? What can a comparative analysis of deposits by Jewish collectors in museums in countries such as France or Israel tell us about the specificities of the situation in Switzerland?

Within the context of the conference, our intention is to deepen academic exchange between museums and other research institutions. Consequently, the Call for Papers is addressed to researchers in museums, universities and colleges, as well as doctoral students engaging with questions of National Socialist persecution policy, its effects on the translocation or divestment of cultural assets, and interdisciplinary questions around collecting history. We are keen to receive contributions about deposits resulting from persecution and war, and those which reflect areas of cultural policy, law and ethics; case studies concerning collections or individual works which became deposits in Swiss museums, the collectors and dealers involved in those processes, and the museums and museum staff who coordinated the negotiations. We also welcome any analyses of the relevant mechanisms, such as the effect on the exhibition practice and redesign of museums, and on the value of collections and individual art works, as well as their placement on the art market.

The conference is part of Collecting and Provenance Research at the Kunstmuseum Bern. Aside from portfolios and individual objects, the focus is upon the development of collection and the leading players within their cultural and political networks.

Please send suggestions for a conference paper of about 20-30 minutes with title and one-page abstract (max. 3000 signs) as well as a CV by 30.06.2020 to:

Kunstmuseum Bern Abteilung Provenienzforschung
FAO Frau Esther Heyer, M.A.

Languages: German, French, English

The invitation to the conference will follow in September 2020. The delivery date for the lecture manuscript is 28.02.2021; since papers will then be published after the conference, and manuscripts should be delivered by 30.04.2021.

To read the document in French, click here.

To read the document in German, click here.






[1] Georg Kreis, Esther Tisa Francini, Anja Heuss: Raubgut –Fluchtgut. Der Transfer von Kulturgütern in und über die Schweiz 1933-1945 und die Frage der Restitution. Unabhängige Expertenkommission Schweiz –Zweiter Weltkrieg (Ed.), Vol. 1, Zürich 2002. Tagungen am Museum Oskar Reinhart in Winterthur „Fluchtgut: Geschichte, Recht und Moral“ (2014) and „Fluchtgut II: Zwischen Fairness und Gerechtigkeit für Nachkommen und heutige Besitzer“ (2015) as well as Peter Mosimann and Beat Schönenberger (Eds.): Fluchtgut –Geschichte, Recht und Moral, Bern 2015.

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