Switzerland to Finance Research Into Disputed Art

New York Times 26 January 2016
By Doreen Carvajal

PARIS — The Swiss government announced this week that it would spend almost $2 million to finance research to help museums to track down the ownership of art that may have been illegally taken by the Nazis during World War II.

A four-year plan, under which researchers would receive grants up to $100,000, was announced Monday by federal culture officials. Their aim is to nudge museums to trace works with murky origins, a delicate issue in a country that became a hub for trading in confiscated works from Nazi and occupied territories.

“Switzerland is one of the first countries that offers financial assistance for provenance research,” Anne Weibel, a government spokeswoman, said Tuesday, adding that the results would be published and that museums would be expected to find “fair and just solutions” with the rightful owners or their heirs.

In 2013, the Swiss culture ministry created an online portal to aid museum researchers in the effort to identify looted works.

The effort has particular resonance in Switzerland, where the Kunstmuseum Bern has accepted a collection of art amassed by a Nazi-era art dealer and preserved by his son, Cornelius Gurlitt. A German commission was created to trace the origins of the art, but the two-year, $2 million investigation resulted in the identification of only five owners of works whose provenance was in doubt.

A museum in the town of La Chaux-de-Fonds is resisting demands to return a looted Constable painting, arguing that it was donated to the institution in good faith by a wealthy collector, who bought it after the war.

In the postwar decades, the issue of plundered art was largely forgotten in Switzerland, but it emerged again in the 1990s when a historian revealed that Swiss art dealers were instrumental in the trafficking of stolen Nazi art.

Swiss museums are also debating another category known as “flight goods” – works of art that were sold at a steep discount by owners desperate to flee Germany.
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