Swiss Jews call for independent commission for the study of cultural assets

European Jewish Congress 26 November 2021

The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG/FCSI) has called on the Swiss  government to designate so-called “escape property” as “cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution.”

To accomplish this, it has also called for the appointment of an independent study commission for the study of cultural assets.

The handling of escape property and restitution claims in Switzerland is extremely difficult under the current rules. According to the SIG/FCSI, the outdated assumption still persists that people fleeing the Nazi regime sold their works of art at market prices and without need. Thus, many still assume today – often wrongly – that a fair deal was struck between the buyer and the seller.

In 1998, the Washington Declaration was signed by 44 states. It is a legally non-binding agreement that seeks to ensure that works of art confiscated by the Nazi regime are found and returned.

Likewise, the signatory states have undertaken to take the necessary steps to reach fair and just solutions. In recent years, the Washington Declaration has made it possible for well over a thousand paintings and art objects from some twenty states to be restituted to their owners or their heirs.

Switzerland is also a signatory to the Washington Declaration in 1998. However, the alpine country’s interpretation of the principles regarding art on the run is much more restrictive.

In Switzerland, private art collections in particular usually take the same position as the Bührle Foundation, for example, that works of flight art should not be treated like looted art.

It was not until 2014 that there was a paradigm shift, when the Museum of art in Bern took over the art collection of Cornelius Gurlitt. It dealt with the difficult legacy in an exemplary manner by announcing that not only works looted by the Nazi regime would be returned to the rightful heirs. From then on, the Museum also sought “fair and equitable solutions” with possible heirs for objects that had escaped.

For the SIG/FCSI, the highest priority is that the distinction between looted art as well as escape art and escape property be abandoned in favour of the designation “Nazi-confiscated cultural property”.

The Museum of art of Bern has also taken an exemplary approach here and has adapted the designation. In particular, the SIG/FCSI calls on the Swiss Confederation, as well as private and public museums, archives, private collectors, auction houses and libraries, to adopt the designation and definition “Nazi-confiscated cultural property”.

It also demands that possible so-called “flight property” in Swiss museums and private collections be comprehensively investigated and, if claims are justified, restituted accordingly. The institutions concerned must actively and increasingly contribute to identifying and locating “cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution”. In doing so, the examination of the individual case would be decisive.

The creation of an independent federal commission for the research and restitution of such cultural property can help in this work. This is also suggested by the Washington Declaration of 1998.

Accordingly, the SIG/FCSI welcomes parliamentary initiatives that are modelled on comparable commissions in other countries. Such a commission would be used, for example, to close gaps in the provenance of works so that “fair and equitable solutions” can be found.
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