The Swiss authorities are missing a golden opportunity to establish the country as a leading centre for provenance checking and restitution of stolen art, says a boss at the Bern Museum of Fine Arts, which houses part of the controversial Gurlitt collection.
In an interview with the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper, museum vice-president Marcel Brülhart calls on the Federal Office of Culture to set up an independent centre for checking the provenance - or history of ownership - of art suspected of being looted by the Nazis.
Instead, the ministry opposed the museum taking over the art collection from Cornelius Gurlitt, the German son of a former Nazi art collector. This contradicted support given by the canton and city of Bern, the foreign ministry and parliament, according to Brülhart.
“The discussion was marked by the fear that Swiss museums would have to give back pictures to possible heirs,” he said.
Now that part of the collection is in Bern, the culture ministry should establish common rules for assessing the provenance of art and an independent centre to oversee the work, Brülhart said. “The government should use the Gurlitt case as a chance to finally establish Switzerland as a leading international provenance research centre.”
The Bern Museum of Fine Arts has spent CHF3 million ($3.05 million) on the Gurlitt collection so far, mainly on legal fees, Brülhart added.
One painting in the collection, Paul Cézanne’s La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, is currently at the centre of a dispute, with the ancestors of the artist claiming ownership, Brülhart revealed.
To help pay the mounting legal fees, two of Gurlitt’s properties in Germany will be sold, but the museum could not rule out selling art works from the collection if the bills continue to grow.