Swiss government approves panel to assess claims for art acquired in Nazi and colonial eras

The Art Newspaper 23 November 2023
By Catherine Hickley

New panel is to find “fair and just solutions” for disputed works in museums

Twenty-five years after it endorsed the Washington Principles on Nazi-looted art, the Swiss government has ordered the creation of an independent panel to assess claims for art wrongfully acquired during the Nazi era. The panel will also evaluate claims for cultural heritage that changed hands in a colonial context.

Switzerland served as a hub for Nazi-looted art before and during the Second World War. Since 2014, when the Kunstmuseum in Bern inherited Cornelius Gurlitt’s art collection—including works seized by the Nazis or sold under duress by Jewish collectors—awareness has grown that Switzerland lacks structures to address such claims.

An uproar over the Kunsthaus Zurich’s acceptance of a loan from the Bührle Foundation that includes contested paintings has cemented that perception.

Works in museum collections are “regularly” the cause of “uncertainties and disputes,” the culture ministry said in a statement. “The government supports the transparent handling of tainted witnesses to the past and the implementation of fair and just solutions.”

Switzerland is among 44 governments and organisations that endorsed the non-binding Washington Principles in 1998. Under these principles, governments agreed to encourage museums to conduct provenance research, identify art seized by the Nazis, and seek “just and fair solutions” with the original Jewish collectors and their heirs for works lost due to persecution. They also agreed to establish “alternative dispute resolution mechanisms for resolving ownership issues.”

France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the UK all set up panels to assess claims for Nazi-looted art in public collections around two decades ago. In Switzerland, the sixth country to do so, the new directive takes effect from January 2024. The government says it will select the commission’s members—between nine and 12 in total—in the first half of next year.

The government directive stipulates that the panel will issue non-binding recommendations in the case of disputes between claimants and current holders and will, where necessary, be able to call on outside experts in individual cases. Under the ruling, claims that have already been the subject of court cases may not be submitted to the panel.

Disputes will be submitted to the culture ministry, which will recommend them to the panel for consideration. The directive says that any work or object that is located in Switzerland or that changed hands in Switzerland is eligible for consideration.

Under the ruling, claimants are permitted to request an evaluation from the panel regardless of whether the current holder agrees, as long as they can demonstrate that they have undertaken provenance research and attempted to reach a settlement with the current holder.

This contrasts with practice in Germany, where both sides have until now had to agree before a claim can be submitted to the government’s advisory committee on Nazi-looted art.
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