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Historian shows Nazi-era links behind prestigious art collection

Emil Bührle, right, pictured in Switzerland in 1950. Keystone / Str

Industrialist and art collector Emil Bührle amassed much of his fortune through opportunistic arms deals during the Second World War, a study has reported.

This content was published on November 19, 2020 - 13:53
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Bührle (1890-1956), who was originally from Germany, was the richest man in Switzerland at the time and one of the country’s most celebrated art collectors, amassing some 600 works for CHF39 million ($35.57 million) over his lifetime.

Some of them are due to be displayed at an exhibition at the Kunsthaus art museum in Zurich next year.

Research by University of Zurich historian Matthieu Leimgruber has identified strong links between Bührle’s fortune, his artworks, and Nazi arms deals during World War II.

The report, released on Tuesday, wrote that Bührle began the war selling cannons to the Allied Powers for a total of CHF60 million. Following the French defeat, he switched to providing the German Nazi regime with weapons to the tune of CHF540 million. Once the latter began to be pushed onto the back foot, he switched clients once again.

“It’s beyond doubt that arms deals made with Nazi Germany made [Bührle] the richest man in Switzerland and also provided the basis for his art collection,” writes Leimgruber. For the historian, Bührle himself was not a Nazi, but he dealt purely opportunistically with the Nazi regime, managing to increase his personal fortune from CHF8 million in 1938 to CHF162 million in 1945.

It’s not the first time Bührle’s business dealings have come under scrutiny, and even during his lifetime he faced various charges of buying looted art, some of which he later returned to Jewish owners.

The latest study, which was commissioned by the city and canton of Zurich, was criticised by the Woz newspaper which questioned its independence. Others, including the mayor of Zurich, have defended the integrity of the research and the report that came out of it.

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