Swiss make slow progress returning Nazi-looted art

Progress in Switzerland has been patchy since the country endorsed the Washington Principles – a set of guidelines to encourage museums to find and identify Nazi-looted art.

Switzerland was one of 44 governments and organisations to agree to the principles 20 years ago. The stated goal was to uncover Nazi-looted art in their collections and seek “just and fair solutions” with the heirs of the original Jewish owners.

The non-binding Washington Principles were endorsed by Switzerland in 1998. Governments agreed to encourage museums to conduct provenance research on their collections, identify art seized by the Nazis, and seek “just and fair solutions” with the original Jewish collectors and their heirs on stolen works.

In Switzerland, attitudes are changing, says Nina Zimmer, the director of the Kunstmuseum (Fine Arts Museum) in Bern. The subject of Nazi-looted art has repeatedly grabbed headlines; in recent times with Cornelius Gurlitt’s bequest to the fine arts museum – a controversial gift that Bern hesitated to accept.

Among the problems in the past, she says, have been a shortage of funding and a lack of expertise. Another stumbling block has been the art market, with dealers resistant to opening up their archives for research, says Thomas Buomberger, a historian and the author of a book about Nazi art looting and Switzerland.

Swiss institutions have now addressed the first two of these issues to at least some extent: the Kunstmuseum is working with Bern University to train young provenance researchers, and the Swiss government in 2016 made funding for provenance research available to museums for the first time.

The Swiss Federal Office for Culture has allocated CHF2 million ($2.01 million) for provenance research in museums from 2016 to 2020. Museums must apply on a project basis and must match the sum they receive from independent sources. The maximum amount awarded per project is 100,000 Swiss francs. It announced the latest batch of funding for 14 provenance research projects on Nov. 19 – among the museums to receive maximum grants are the Kunstmuseum in Bern, the Kunstmuseum Basel and the Fondation Beyeler.

The first 12 projects from 2016-2018 have been largely completed and the results published, according to the office. Benno Widmer, head of the museums and collections department, says demand for the funding has been high, suggesting museums are increasingly taking responsibility.

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