Cornered, a Swiss museum sells its masterpieces

Baden (Switzerland). It is a beautiful patrician villa in Art Nouveau style, designed by Karl Moser (1860-1936) and surrounded by a park, located in the center of the small town of Baden, a few kilometers from Zürich. This “Langmatt villa”, the wealthy industrialist Sidney Brown and his wife Jenny Brown-Sulzer made it a setting for their impressionist collection, pioneering in Switzerland, which they assembled between 1908 and 1919: paintings by Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Monet, Degas and Cézanne. The set of fifty paintings was transferred in 1987 to a foundation, accessible to the public since 1990, within the very walls of the historic villa with its period furniture. Access to this Langmatt Museum remains somewhat confidential today – 18,500 visitors went there in 2022 – but it enjoys a fine reputation in the world of Swiss art collections.

A capital divided by ten since 1987

If time seems to have stopped within the walls of the Brown villa, the building erected in 1901 today requires a complete renovation, planned for 2024 and 2025. The operation, estimated at 19 million Swiss francs (or approximately €19.8 million), is financed for one third by the public authorities and two thirds by the foundation. The problem? The finances of the latter also need urgent restructuring: the capital of the foundation has melted (from the initial 12.6 MCH [soit 13,1 M€]only 1.8 million remain [1,9 M€]) and, in 2022, the operating deficit amounted to 700,000 CH [730 000 €]). ” It’s a question of survival “, assures Markus Stegmann, the director of the museum, who has been looking for patrons since 2020. In vain. The ax fell at the beginning of the summer, so it will be the sale of paintings from the collection which will boost the foundation’s finances. “It goes without saying that the sale of the paintings is extremely painful, but as a solution of last resort, it unfortunately has no alternative. In-depth clarifications with the help of specialists showed that the 40 million Swiss francs (nearly €42 million) needed could be reached by the sale of one to three paintings, without touching the heart of the collection. the director said in a press release. Curiously, the alternative of integrating the Brown collection into an existing museum (on the model of the Emil Bührle Collection, integrated into the Kunsthaus Zürich) does not seem to have been the subject of very in-depth study on the part of the foundation.

The Langmatt Foundation in Baden.

© Lee Li Photography

A legal sale for some

At the end of September 2023, the three paintings signed Paul Cézanne and designated for sale were revealed. Two still lifes, Fruits and jar of ginger (around 1890, estimated at €33 to €42.5 million, [voir ill.]) ; Four apples and a knife (1885, estimated at €6.5 to €9.5 million); and a landscape, The Sea at l’Estaque (1878-1879, estimated at €2.8 to 4.7 million) will therefore be offered for sale on November 9 in New York under the hammer of Christie’s.

“It’s the end of a taboo” for the art historian Tobia Bezzola, president of the Swiss branch of the International Council of Museums (Icom), interviewed by the newspaper Badener Tagblatt : “Cultural good is the true core or substance of an institution, it is not capital available for the functioning of this institution and must remain untouchable. »

However, can we qualify this controversial sale as “illegal”? Nothing of the sort according to Swiss lawyer Sandra Sykora, head of the Kunst und Recht law firm: “The sale of these paintings is legal, because they belong to a private foundation and the latter must ensure that the sale does not contravene the objectives of the foundation, in particular “preserving the Villa Langmatt with its park and its collection of “art and make it accessible to the public as a museum”. The foundation supervisory authority, which must ensure that the foundation assets are used in such a way that the foundation’s purpose is properly implemented, apparently followed this advice and approved the sale. »

Doubts expressed regarding compliance with the will

Alfred R. Sulzer, former president of the Langmatt Foundation and great-nephew of Jenny Brown-Sulzer, has serious doubts: “According to the will and the founding deed, only items from the collection that cannot be exhibited or that do not contribute to the unity of the collection can be sold. In the case of a sale of works of art which must generate net proceeds of 40 million [de francs suisses], these conditions are clearly not met. »

It remains to be seen whether the sale complies with the ethical guidelines of Icom, to which the Langmatt Foundation adheres. The president of the Swiss council of the international organization warns that the sale of objects from the museum collection could lead to a loss of public trust, and he reserves the right to withdraw membership status at the Langmatt Foundation. A threat that hardly seems to impress the museum director: “Above all, I would expect the association to provide help when a member is in difficulty, and not to threaten them with exclusion. » Questioned by the German newspaper Die ZeitMarkus Stegmann goes further: “When it comes to survival, reputation is secondary. »

Will the public have any chance of seeing these three paintings again one day? If the director of the Langmatt Museum dreams of future buyers-patrons who will make a permanent loan to the museum, Tobia Bezzola imagines a more realistic scenario: “The works will probably end up in a chalet in Gstaad or in a skyscraper in Dubai. »

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