Presentation of the official delegation of Switzerland at the Vilnius Forum
Andrea F.G. Rascher, Head of Service on Transfer of Cultural Objects and Contact Bureau on Looted Art at the Swiss Federal Department of the Interior
3-5 October 2000
Switzerland sent an official delegation led by Andrea F.G. Rascher to the Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Assets who gave the presentation: 'The Implementation of the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art and the Resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe 1205' (1999):'Looted Jewish Cultural Property: Recent Developments in Switzerland' set out below.
All countries present at the Forum agreed the Final Declaration.
Mr. Chairman, Honorable Delegates
On behalf of the Swiss delegation, I would first of all like to thank the Government of the Republic of Lithuania as well as the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania and the European Institute for Dispersed Ethnic Minorities for organizing this conference, and for ensuring its smooth running. Your hospitality has allowed us to conduct our discussions in the calmness that the seriousness and importance of these subjects demand.
Let me begin my presentation by making some comments on the situation in Switzerland.
Switzerland belongs to those countries where no confiscation or looting of art took place before and during World War II, because our country was not occupied by Germany and the rule of law prevailed throughout this period. Nevertheless, art objects were shipped to and through Switzerland during the war, particularly by smuggling or through diplomatic pouches of the German Legation and Consulates.
Immediately after the war, the federal government of Switzerland enacted special legislation to facilitate the restitution of stolen art works. Two federal decrees were adopted in 1945 and 1946. The first gave victims the right to reclaim their stolen property, which was located in Switzerland, from the new owner, even if the latter had acquired the assets in good faith. If a good faith purchaser had to return the object, he was entitled to claim fair and reasonable compensation from the Swiss Confederation. The second decree, approved by the federal government on February 22, 1946, obliged every resident in Switzerland to report the known existence of stolen art works and imposed penalties in case of a failure to comply. Professional and bank secrecy provisions were lifted. On the basis of this special legislation, a total of 77 stolen art works were recovered in Switzerland and restored to their rightful owners.
Aside from the possibility that looted art reached Switzerland during the war and was not tracked down despite the implementation of the above mentioned measures, there is also a possibility that, as may be the case for any other country, looted art reached Switzerland in later years through trade, and might therefore be found in Swiss collections today.
To shed light on these questions, various projects were initiated in Switzerland during the past four years.
The Swiss Federal Office of Culture has systematically examined all cultural goods owned by the Confederation with a view to determining their origin, the period, and, if warranted, detailed circumstances of their acquisition. The study's results, which were published in a report in August 1998 (appendix 1), can be summarised as follows: Within the study's framework, no object was found that had been acquired through illegal or immoral dealings. No object figured in the looted-art inventories published by various countries.
The Swiss government is committed to investigating thoroughly all future queries regarding the national art collection. If it turned out that certain items had been obtained unlawfully, the question of returning them or of paying compensation would have to be addressed promptly.
Other Swiss Museums
In 1998, all the large Swiss art museums signed a declaration in which, amongst other things, they announced that they would make their inventories transparent; these are accessible for the purpose of research as well as for people with a proven interest. Furthermore, the museums declared themselves willing to conduct thorough investigations of ownership claims in connection with cultural objects from the period in question and to contribute in a constructive manner to mutually acceptable solutions in the event of well-founded claims (appendix 2).
Since then, major Swiss museums, such as the art museums in Aarau, Basel, Chur, Geneva, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Lucerne, Solothurn, St. Gall and Winterthur, have started investigations into the origins of the pieces in their collections. So far, two works from Swiss museums have been returned to the heirs of the pre-World War II owners:
In 1998, the Art Museum of Basel returned a painting by Pierre Bonnard, entitled "Nature morte au bouquet de fleurs", to Guy-Patrice Dauberville, the heir of the family Bernheim-Jeune. The painting had been confiscated from the family's home in Paris by the German occupying forces in 1941. In 1956, the Art Museum Basel received the painting as a donation.
In consultation with the museum, Guy-Patrice Dauberville decided in 1998 that the painting should remain on display at the museum. In the summer of this year, the Grison Art Collection in Chur returned a painting by Max Liebermann, "Nähschule im Waisenhaus Amsterdam", to Berta Silberberg, the daughter-in-law of the Breslau art collector Max Silberberg. Max Silberberg had sold the painting in 1934 to the art dealer Paul Cassirer. The painting was donated to the Grison Art Collection in 1992. The original owners and the museum decided to return the painting because it is possible that Max Silbermann sold it in 1934 under pressure of the seizing of power by the Nazis.
Historical Investigation I: Buomberger
Two research projects were initiated to provide clarification on the history of trade in stolen art in Switzerland before, during and immediately after World War II.
In 1997, a historical research study on the role of Switzerland as an art market from the beginning of the 1930s until about 1955 was commissioned. The historian and journalist Thomas Buomberger carried out extensive research on archives in Switzerland and abroad. He researched the conduct of federal, cantonal, and local public institutions as well as the role of private parties, art dealers, museums, and collectors during this period. The investigation was published at the end of 1998, in the form of a book entitled "Raubkunst - Kunstraub".
It is currently still the most extensive and detailed study available on this subject in Switzerland.
Historical Investigation II: Bergier-Commission
The Independent Commission of Experts: Switzerland - Second World War was established in December 1996, on the basis of a special decree unanimously approved by the Swiss parliament. The Commission's mandate is to investigate the fate of assets moved to Switzerland before, during and immediately after the World War II from a historical and legal point of view, and to present a final report by the end of the year 2001 at the latest. The comprehensive mandate covers all assets moved to Switzerland, including cultural assets, both of the victims of the Nazi regime as well as of its perpetrators and collaborators. The investigation results on trade in looted art will be published in the second half of 2001 as part of the Commission's final report. It is worth underlining that in line with its international orientation, the Independent Commission has research teams working both in Switzerland and abroad. The Commission enjoys unfettered access to all relevant public and private archives (e.g. museums, art dealers). It is unique in international comparison that even private archives are open to the Commission's investigators. Switzerland hopes that this measure will provide a full explanation on the matter of Holocaust-related cultural assets, as far as this is still possible today.
Contact Bureau on Looted Art
In December 1998, the Swiss government decided to set up a Contact Bureau on Looted Art under the aegis of the Federal Office of Culture. The Contact Bureau on Looted Art is a center of expertise at the federal level to respond to all issues linked to looted art from the World War II era (appendix 3). Its scope of activity includes the following three main task areas:
1) The bureau processes inquiries, which fall within federal competence. That means inquiries, follow-up research, and claims that affect the federal art collections, the National Museum, and the National Library.
2) Inquiries that refer to items held by other institutions or private parties are passed on to the relevant addressee by the bureau. Where necessary, the bureau will provide information, advice, and other assistance with a view to assisting researchers and claimants at the federal level and to contributing, as a center of expertise, toward a satisfactory resolution in case of disputes.
The fact that the Contact Bureau on Looted Art is not in a position to enforce particular measures, enables it to provide a neutral platform to both parties during disputes. An impartial position during mediation is a pre-requisite for parties to reach a mutually acceptable solution. This is clearly evident from the two cases described above, involving the museums of Basel and Chur. According to Swiss law, it is not possible to force the return of an object after five years have elapsed, if that object was purchased in good faith. The moment that it became clear that the paintings involved were Holocaust-era looted art, or, in the case of Chur, that the sale of the painting may have been forced by the extreme situation of the time, the institutions involved took the initiative in seeking a mutually acceptable solution with the heirs. This shows that the Washington principles can and must be applied within the framework of national legal systems, with the aim to reach fair and mutually acceptable resolutions to disputes.
3) The bureau keeps in touch with foreign institutions and organizations that deal with the looted art problem. It promotes the exchange of information, provides information on conditions in Switzerland, and imparts knowledge gained abroad to interested circles in Switzerland. Hence, an important contribution is made to raising awareness, to information networking, identifying problems, and resolving them. To this end, the bureau also organizes seminars for museums and collector circles. At the end of this year, it will organize a conference on the legal aspects involved in dealing with the issue of looted art, in cooperation with the Art Law Center (appendix 4) in Geneva.
In nearly two years of existence, the Contact Bureau on Looted Art has handled a large number of diverse inquiries. Apart from a few cases where the office was specifically asked to negotiate and mediate between parties, many inquiries about works of art, requests for assistance, contacts and advice have been handled by the bureau. An important aspect that should not be forgotten is that exactly those people who are facing a near impossible situation, in that they are seeking objects for which they can provide little evidence, are grateful to have their problem taken seriously. Clearly, this can be inferred from the reactions of individuals who have approached the Bureau for assistance.
With its coherent and far-reaching measures, Switzerland is determined to contribute its share to coming to terms with one of the saddest chapter in human history, the Holocaust. We wish to and must complete this process in a thorough and honest manner. The time at which we act is late, but by no means too late.
Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Cultural Assets Website, accessed 27 November 2002. The website no longer exists (20 July 2007).