The Bührle Collection: A Cézanne in the Turmoil of the Second World War

Emil Georg Bührle supplied arms to the Nazis and became the wealthiest man in Switzerland. His collection of paintings, which is soon to make a very public move into the Kunsthaus Zürich, contains a landscape by Cézanne with a concealed provenance.

Sold under duress to Switzerland by the Jewish couple Berthold and Martha Nothmann, later entering Bührle’s possession: the painting “Paysage”, by Paul Cézanne. Photo: Paysage, Paul Cézanne, oil on canvas, 54 x 73 cm, Emil Bührle Collection

The paintings from the Bührle Collection are about to be awakened from their slumber. Their transfer from an underground bunker to the Kunsthaus Zürich extension will be accompanied by a retinue of security personnel. The move will turn the museum into a place of remembrance, for this collection would not exist without the Second World War, nor would the Kunsthaus Zürich as we know it today exist without the huge contributions made even after his death by Emil G. Bührle.

It was clear from the start that Bührle and his art collection were politically controversial. In order to ensure a smooth transition nonetheless from the private to the public sphere, research into the collection’s origins was split into two areas. On the one hand there was the source of the funds that Bührle put into building up his collection, on the other the question of where the paintings he acquired with them actually came from. The first area was examined by the University of Zurich. Its study was financed with public funds, and was monitored – problematically, as would be seen – by a steering committee of representatives from politics, the museum world, and business.

The set-up for the second area was quite different: the provenance research was undertaken on the quiet in the Bührle Foundation itself by its curator and director, the art historian Lukas Gloor. The purpose of his research was to “pave the way” for the collection to enter the Kunsthaus extension, as he recently admitted in the publication Eigentum verpflichtet [The Responsibilities of Ownership]. Gloor was given discretionary advice by the American provenance researcher Laurie Stein, who was remunerated by the Bührle Foundation. The Foundation is financed to an unknown amount by the IHAG Holding, a subsidiary of the IHAG Privatbank, founded in 1949 by Emil G. Bührle. The holding, and with it the bank, is still owned by the Bührle family.

This odd constellation of conflicting research leads to a narrowed view—to the point of upholding falsehoods. A glaring example is the late-impressionist painting “Paysage”, by Paul Cézanne, where the Bührle provenance research conceals facts and cites source material erroneously in order to obscure the circumstances under which the work’s previous owners – the Jewish couple Berthold and Martha Nothmann – were compelled to sell their Cézanne due to direct persecution by the German National Socialist state.

Concepts are relevant

The provenance of “Paysage” was described as problematic in 2015 by the historian Thomas Buomberger in his “Schwarzbuch Bührle” [Black Book Bührle]. The painting had somehow reached the United States, where in June 1947 it was discovered and bought by the wily St. Gallen art dealer Fritz Nathan. According to Buomberger, it should be regarded as a “flight asset” [“Fluchtgut”].

This term was coined by the Bergier Commission to describe the origin of cultural goods that were sold outside the direct area of influence of the National Socialists, in countries such as Switzerland, England, or the United States. These sales may have been legal as the law stood, but the reason for their transaction lay in the National Socialist policy of persecution and dispossession. The term “flight assets” is now subject to criticism. Switzerland should adopt the established German legal concept of “confiscation of property due to Nazi persecution” [“NS-verfolgungsbedingter Vermögensentzug”], urges the lawyer Andrea F. G. Raschèr, who set up the contact point for stolen art at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture. Doing so would place the categories of stolen art and “flight assets” under the same legal heading.

Buomberger’s allegation of a “flight asset” background to Cézanne’s “Paysage” was repudiated by the Bührle Foundation. It does admit that the provenance has not been entirely clarified, but maintains that it was declared when the painting was sold in the United States in 1947 – a claim that is undocumented, however. It is equally unclear from which gallery Nathan purchased the work, and for how much. In September 1947 he sold the painting on to Emil C. Bührle for 25,000 Swiss franks. Were it to come on the market today, it would fetch several million Swiss franks.

According to the Foundation’s own provenance research, “Paysage” belongs in its category A. This is reserved for paintings whose origins are seen as clarified and unproblematic. In one document, Foundation director Lukas Gloor frankly admits that their categories A and B+ do in fact contain works that could be considered “so-called ‘flight assets.’” But the Bührle Foundation ignores this term, and moreover refuses to acknowledge the historical research on the subject.

The Foundation’s website gives the following information about the provenance of the Cézanne before it came into Bührle’s possession: in 1926 or 27 it was acquired by Berthold Nothmann in the Lucerne branch of the gallery Bernheim Jeune & Cie. Twenty years later, on August 10, 1947, Nothmann’s widow, Martha, wrote to the well-known Winterthur art collector Oskar Reinhart in the belief that he had purchased the work. The website gives the decisive passage – in German – as follows: “We were compelled to leave Germany in 1939, but were able to take all our paintings with us. At this time we lived from the sale of our paintings. Unfortunately my husband died five years ago. I now hear that my most recently sold picture, a landscape by Cézanne, has come into your possession. Because as a childless couple we loved our paintings like children, I am infinitely glad that one of our ‘children’ has gone to such a good home.”

Concealed pathways

A visit to the Oskar Reinhart Archive in Winterthur shows, however, that the letter has been falsely quoted and that its meaning was distorted when translated into English. Martha Nothmann doesn’t write that she and her husband took “all” their paintings with them. And she also doesn’t write that they lived from the sale of their paintings “at this time,” that is, during the couple’s not further specified enforced departure from Germany, but have done so since then. The phrasing can be more exactly translated as “We were compelled to leave Germany in 1939, but were able to take our paintings with us. Since then we have lived from the sale of our paintings.”

The findings of the provenance research are presented exclusively in English on the otherwise German-language website of the Bührle Foundation, with the exception of direct quotations like the one above. The English summary of the German source reads “when they left Germany in 1939,” making a forced upheaval into a banal departure. The reason why they had to leave Germany is suppressed: the Nothmanns were Jewish and as such were victims of Nazi terror. And the Jewish background to previous ownership is mentioned nowhere else in Bührle’s provenance research. This is absurd, given the fact that many paintings had to be sold because of anti-Semitic persecution. The WOZ newspaper confronted the Bührle Foundation with three points: the deviating quotations from the letter, the suppression of war and persecution from the provenance research, and the non-recognition of the category of “flight assets.” The Foundation declined to respond.

Bührle acquired the bulk of his collection on the transatlantic art market, which was booming in the post-war years like never before. The reason was the translocation, that is, the displacement, of cultural goods: as a result of anti-Jewish persecution and dispossession, many collections were dismantled and countless art objects came to the United States. Today it is often the descendants of Jewish refugees who are researching the whereabouts of paintings formerly owned by their families. Berthold and Martha Nothmann had no children themselves, but both came from large families. If any living relatives wanted to find out more about Cézanne’s “Paysage”, the Foundation would be one of their first points of virtual contact. And the Foundation’s website would function as a filter that kept back the decisive facts. As there are probably other paintings with a history of flight from the Nazis in the collection, this factor potentially applies in other cases.

By their own account, the Nothmanns did not flee Germany with their entire collection in their possession. Furthermore, the altered wording on the Bührle Foundation’s website also gives the false impression that paintings from the Nothmanns’ collection were only sold around 1939. This would make their provenance unproblematic—at least from the point of view of the Bührle Foundation, whose provenance research declares sales due to anti-Semitic persecution as unobjectionable. But current research findings from Germany show that the Nothmanns had already lost at least one work of art from their collection in Nazi Germany. The Bührle Collection contains another work that had belonged to the Nothmanns: Cézanne’s “Paysage du Nord” entered Bührle’s possession in 1937, two years before the couple had to flee to London. This other landscape painting by Cézanne is not a part of the selection moving to the Kunsthaus. The painting, with its obviously problematic provenance, remains in the Bührle family’s private collection, hidden from public view.

The alterations to the wording of the letter have a further effect: they downplay the Nothmann’s persistent hardship. Let us shift perspective and tell the story of the sale of Cézanne’s “Paysage” from their point of view, through the eyes of the victims.

Berthold Nothmann was born in 1865 in an Upper Silesian village, the son of a poor plumber and roofer. He married Martha Bender in 1894. In his unpublished memoirs, from 1936, he looks back at the Jewish-German world of his childhood, which was to be obliterated by the National Socialists in the coming years. He describes the Jewish customs, rites, and family celebrations that were very formative, but which he left behind in the wake of the modern age. He would like to have become an artist, but circumstances forced him into commerce. His considerable upward mobility within heavy industry rewarded him with the position of director of the Upper Silesian Steelworks Company. As we know from numerous other Jewish autobiographical reports from the time, this meant the prospect of “assimilation” – that is, of complete absorption into German society. A dream, as Nothmann wrote in his house in Berlin-Wannsee, that was now over. The previous year had seen the enactment of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws, which were the beginning of what the historian Saul Friedländer calls the “encirclement.”

Escape into poverty

The Nothmanns didn’t “leave” Germany when they set out for London in 1939—they saved their very lives by joining the last wave of Jewish refugees. From this point onward, all routes out of the National Socialist state were blocked by the outbreak of war. Mass deportations from Berlin to the concentration camps began in 1941, and the elderly couple would have been utterly at the mercy of the Nazi terror.

They fled into financial ruin. In order to cover the high costs, the Nothmanns had to convert everything they had into money, including paintings from their collection. The National Socialist state applied special taxes and other instruments of financial deprivation in order to discriminate against and plunder unwanted sections of the population. Beginning with the Reich Flight Tax: Jews had to sign over twenty-five percent of their capital to the National Socialist state if they wanted to relocate abroad. Revenue from this punitive tax made up almost eighty-eight percent of Germany’s entire capital taxation in the fiscal year of 1938/39, when the Nothmanns left Germany. This was supplemented by other charges, including the so-called Jewish Capital Levy, through which the state deprived Jews of a further twenty – later twenty-five – percent of their total assets as “reparation to the German people.”

These anti-Semitic punitive taxes, which also financed the rearmament and warfare of the National Socialist state, were part of the unprecedented robbery of Jewish Germans. They also led to the pre-war transfer of Jewish-owned art and cultural goods into the huge collections of the Nazi leaders: if emigrants were unable to pay the levies, their property was confiscated.

Having arrived in London, the Nothmanns did all they could to travel on to the United States. English businessmen wrote letters on their behalf to the US Embassy in May 1939, but the months of forced exile became increasingly impoverished years. Visas were only issued to the Nothmanns in mid-1942. This was the time of Berthold Nothmann’s death, about which no details are known. What is certain, however, is that Martha Nothmann, now sixty-eight, left for the United States alone. She had no hope of a pension, and given her age, work was not a serious option.

On August 10, 1947, Martha Nothmann wrote the letter to Oskar Reinhart that the Bührle Foundation misquotes in its provenance research. She had a sublet in the small village of Stamford, New York, in the Catskill Mountains, northwest of New York City. Today it contains the country homes of wealthy city-dwellers; then it was a poor district. Jewish families had settled there since the beginning of the 20th century, fleeing from increasing European anti-Semitism.

In 1947 Mrs. Nothmann hesitantly asked the wealthy Winterthur collector if he might be interested in paintings. She enclosed a short inventory and complained of adverse experience with art dealers, whose conditions had been very bad for her. For this reason she was now attempting to sell the last paintings from her husband’s collection on her own initiative. “Please excuse my venturing to write to you so directly, but times are hard. We once imagined the close of our lives differently.” We don’t know if Martha Nothmann ever found out that Cézanne’s “Paysage” didn’t go to Oskar Reinhart, but to Emil G. Bührle, arms manufacturer to Nazi Germany. This letter is the last trace of her in the archives.

Provenance research produces raw data. Investigation is often complex and time-consuming. But what does the often fragmentary data actually tell us? The Bührle Foundation only publishes the findings of its in-house research on its website. Secondary documents that might indicate either the scholarly methods used or supplementary independent findings have never been published. This is all the more astonishing as no international publication on the plunder of cultural goods by the National Socialists has yet appeared that doesn’t mention the name of Bührle. The German Lost Art Foundation consistently lists his name under “Private persons and companies participating in the Nazi looting of art.”

None of this can be found on the Bührle website. Instead, each of the approximately two hundred objects in the collection is given a rather impenetrable list of changes of hand: who bought which artwork, when, at what price, from whom, and where. This is supplemented by information about exhibitions in which the pictures were shown, and further literature agreeable to the Foundation.

Reading this provenance data, one finds oneself in an unreal space. A space without history in which names are linked with numbers and places in deceptive clarity. It is the utopia of the free global market, ordered by invisible hands. The data presented allows you to run your finger over a map of the world and follow each of the 203 works into the collection: from Germany to Switzerland, for example; or from France to Germany and from there on to London; or from Germany via London to the United States – journeys that all end up in the same place: Zurich. Totally ignored are the preconditions of persecution, forced emigration, plunder, and war that enabled Bührle to buy the works in the first place. The artworks were swept onto the market by National Socialist persecution and the Second World War. This war made the arms dealer Bührle into Switzerland’s richest citizen, and he invested part of his considerable fortune in art.

Space without history

Since Bührle’s death in 1956, the paintings and sculptures in his possession have hardly been moved, if we discount the occasional exhibition and a robbery in 2008. At the moment they are stored in a secret location near Bern. Soon they are to begin their last journey for the time being. Where the collection has really been moving in recent years is on the value curves. Bührle spent around forty million Swiss franks on art during his lifetime. Following his death his art treasures were divided up like a cake: a third each to his heirs Dieter and Hortense – both now also deceased – and the Foundation. The value of the Foundation’s share alone currently amounts to two to three billion Swiss franks, and rising. But such numbers are ultimately fictive, as prestige works such as these will never come onto the market again. This is ensured by the legal structure of the Bührle Foundation, whose main task is to keep the collection together, along with the new art bunker, equipped with the very latest security technology, on Heimplatz in Zurich.

The long journey of “Paysage”, painted around 1879 by Paul Cézanne, is also coming to an end. But with the opening of the Kunsthaus annex, the research findings must be implemented in situ. This means bringing together the two areas that were only permitted to be examined separately: the academically sound, public research report by the University of Zurich and the in-house provenance research by the Bührle Foundation. In late 2019 it was announced that the Kunsthaus itself would decide in due time how this was to be achieved. Lukas Gloor, as representative of the Bührle Collection, is certain to sit on the decisive panel.

The current job description for the replacement of the soon departing Kunsthaus director, Christoph Becker, expresses the hope of finding someone to develop a “convincing vision and a forward-looking strategy.” Such a vision will be necessary—the Kunsthaus holds a responsibility as a place of remembrance. For overriding questions inevitably arise in relation to the Bührle complex: questions about the right approach to historical injustice, and about a worthy culture of remembrance that doesn’t disregard the point of view of the victims.

Translated by Michael Turnbull

See also “Through the Gates of Hell into the Kunsthaus Zürich” , “Bührle History is Whitewashed” and “Rectifying Emil G. Bührle’s complex legacy” .