Interview with Ronald S. Lauder: 'Good faith alone doesn’t make pictures clean'

03 Feb 2016
03 Feb 2016 Facebook Twitter Email Print

In an interview with the leading Swiss daily 'Neue Zürcher Zeitung' published on 3 February 2016, World Jewish Congress Ronald S. Lauder gives his views on how Switzerland should deal with Nazi-looted art.

Interview by Luzi Bernet and Philipp Meier

The president of the World Jewish Congress criticizes how Switzerland is dealing with looted art. Ahead of a lecture in Zurich before Jewish community members and art experts, he granted an interview to NZZ.

NZZ: Why did you choose Zurich as the venue for your speech about looted art? Do you see reasons to take action here in particular?

LAUDER: Not especially in Zurich, but in Switzerland. Take the Gurlitt collection. The fact that Bern accepted this trove is crazy. It is in fact not a valuable collection. Apart from a few paintings it mainly consists of prints and drawings. Bern just didn’t look at it carefully enough. Imagine it would be called the Heinrich Himmler Collection – would Bern have accepted that as well? Hardly.

NZZ: Do you know examples for art works in Swiss collections or museums that have not been properly checked?

LAUDER: The auction house Fischer, during the Nazi time, held 47 auctions of stolen art. We can only guess that most of it is still in Switzerland, probably also in the storage rooms of some Swiss museums. The question is now what the museums should do with it. If a private persons wants to sell such a work, the provenance question will arise.

I don’t want to conduct a witch hunt. We don’t want to know what private people have on their walls. This is about sitting down and thinking calmly what Switzerland can do to catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to provenance research. Most countries have done their job in that respect.

NZZ: Switzerland makes a distinction between looted art and flight goods. Is this distinction appropriate?

LAUDER: No. It’s the same thing and irrespective of the question if a work was confiscated or was sold off under pressure. In both instances, it was done under force from the Nazis and it needs to be dealt with in the same manner. In both cases, I call it stolen art.

NZZ: Germany doesn’t make this distinction.

LAUDER: Nobody does, except Switzerland.

NZZ: Do you know the Bührle collection, which will be shown in the expanded Kunsthaus Zürich from 2020?

LAUDER: Yes. Emil Bührle was a big arms seller to the Nazis. At the same time, he was a big buyer of looted art. In 1948, he had 13 works that were looted art. What happened? He gave them back, and the Swiss government compensated him, upon which he bought them all back. Today, there are in fact two parts of the Bührle collection, one is publicly accessible, the other is private. We don’t know what’s included in the private collection.

NZZ: Do you think the provenance of works in private ownership should be researched as well?

LAUDER: Yes, because it’s impossible to make a distinction between the two. Look, I don’t want to put private collectors under pressure. But in the case of Bührle, it’s different. The question is: What is good faith and what is bad faith? Take the Fischer auctions: Everybody who acquired a picture there knew that these were art works which had been stolen by the Nazis. Or take Bührle: After he had returned his 13 looted pictures and been compensated by the government, he bought them again. Good faith doesn’t make these pictures clean somehow.

NZZ: Let’s come back to the Gurlitt collection. 

LAUDER: With pleasure. I ask myself: What does Bern want with this collection? Accepting it means opening a Pandora’s Box. But apparently, Bern is so impressed by names such as Dürer, Picasso and Matisse that they have overlooked that this collection contains mostly drawings and prints. It’s not that valuable.

NZZ: Are you disappointed about the results of the Gurlitt task force’s investigation? Only for 11 of the 499 works suspected of possibly being looted art the provenance could be established.

LAUDER: That’s exactly the point. When the Nazis stole the pictures, they drew up exact lists of the paintings. However, the drawings and prints were just enumerated, without information as to their provenance. That makes the research difficult. But Cornelius Gurlitt, the heir of the Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, never bought a painting himself. So where did all these works come from? For sure they didn’t just fall from the sky.

NZZ: Bern should never have accepted the Gurlitt collection then?

LAUDER: There was no reason to do it. Bern should not have done it.

NZZ: What would have been the best solution for this collection?

LAUDER: Simply this: Leave the works in Germany, auction them off, and give the proceeds to the Jewish community in Germany and Israel. When I was in Austria, I discovered the Mauerbach collection, which resembles that of Gurlitt. We were able to check the provenance of 40 percent of the trove, the remaining 60 percent we sold off in Vienna, for about 15 to 20 million dollars. The same thing should be done with the Gurlitt collection.

NZZ: What would you recommend that Bern should do?

LAUDER: They should say thank you for the offer, reject it, leave it in Germany and sell it off. What’s happening now is that the whole world will look at Switzerland and watch exactly what’s happening with the collection. I am very happy that Alain Berset, the Swiss culture minister, has announced that two million Swiss francs will be provided for provenance research. Apart from that, we need a decent database and an independent commission which supervises this thing. We could help with our experts. 

NZZ: How do you explain the growing interest in looted art?

LAUDER: One of the reasons is the film ‘Woman in Gold’ about Klimt’s masterpiece ‘Adele Bloch Bauer I’. Millions of people became sensitive to the problem of looted art through this film. Another reason is Gurlitt. And finally, it’s a question of conscience.

NZZ: That is to say that it has to do with how to deal with the past?

LAUDER: Yes. Especially because there were people like Emil Bührle who sold weapons to Nazi Germany and thus indirectly became involved in the muder of many people, many Jews, because he acquired art of which he knew that it had been stolen and that there was Swiss government that whitewashed him.

NZZ: Is it also about belated justice for the victims and their families?

LAUDER: Justice is a strange word. The answer is: It’s a moral question. There is no justice for somebody who lost everything.

NZZ: Comparing Switzerland with Germany or Austria, does Switzerland lag behind in your view?

LAUDER: Germany, Austria and Switzerland are the three countries which are most involved in this problem. Austria has so far done a good job. Germany is doing the right things, a bit slowly, but properly. And Switzerland has finally started to deal with it. But there is a lot yet to be done.

NZZ: Should Switzerland set a standard here?

LAUDER: It should follow the standard in place, and it can now set the ‘gold standard’. It’s a question of conscience.

NZZ: Do you think that the 2 million Swiss francs announced by the Swiss government will be sufficient to support provenance research?

LAUDER: No, but it’s a very good first step in the right direction. The most important thing is that such a step shows the good intentions. I thank Switzerland for that. You cannot accuse people for what happened 80 years ago. But you can say, let’s do now what we can do, so we can finish this matter.

NZZ: What should a private collector do who has doubts about the provenance of one of his pictures?

LAUDER:  He should know that he could run into trouble when selling such a work. I give you an example from my own experience: I once bought a painting from Hodler, one of the important traders in Zurich. When I wanted to resell it about 15 years ago, in order to acquire another work, I discovered that it had been looted. I found the rightful owners and offered them to have its worth estimated by Sotheby’s and Christie’s. I then auctioned it off under the agreement that I would pay the heirs the estimated value and keep the rest.

NZZ: Are you personally engaged in provenance research?

LAUDER: For the last 25 years, I have been involved in various organizations, but mainly in the background. The first time I spoke publicly on this was two years ago in Berlin, on the Gurlitt case. I think that I can trigger some constructive debate with my speech here in Zurich. I reemphasize: this is not a witch hunt, this is about getting the best out of this matter. That means, if Swiss museums have works in their storage rooms which are looted art, they should give them back. And the Kunstmuseum Bern should say this: Now that we know the Gurlitt collection, keep it! Why should people want to watch looted art in this great museum? What’s that for? The entire Gurlitt collection is contaminated. But the good thing about all this is that the debate on looted art has been reignited.

(c) Neue Zürcher Zeitung / Translation: Michael Thaidigsmann

Original article (in German)