Switzerland creates a commission on provenance

Swiss. The announcement was made on November 22 by the Federal Council: a commission on provenances will be created. It’s an understatement to say that it was long awaited. Because Switzerland not only ratified the Washington Principles in 1998 but also, in 2009, the Terezìn Declaration – two initiatives aimed at encouraging provenance research and facilitating the restitution of works stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War. . This commission of experts (between 9 and 12) from the world of culture, law and science and “which can be consulted in the event of a dispute and issue non-binding recommendations on a case-by-case basis”, will begin its work at the beginning of 2024. It is designed on the model of the commissions already established in France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Austria.

Museums financially supported in research

After the turmoil caused by the presentation of the Emil Bührle collection at the Kunsthaus in Zurich, Switzerland had to deploy more effective means, at the national level, to identify art stolen by the Nazis, clarify questions of disputed ownership and find of the “just and equitable solutions”. Until now, museums have carried out provenance research on their own scale, supported in their task, since 2016, and up to 50%, by the Federal Office of Culture. In nine years, more than 3.5 million Swiss francs (€3.7 million) have been allocated to Swiss museums which have increased their research in recent years in the field of“contaminated works”.

The scope of this future commission will be extended beyond the cases of works stolen during the Second World War, to encompass the “cultural heritage with a problematic past”. By establishing such a body, the Federal Council affirms “the importance attached by the Confederation to legally and ethically responsible treatment of cultural heritage, in particular works of art looted during the National Socialist era and cultural goods originating from a colonial context”, as indicated in the official press release. Provenance research “in a colonial context” have intensified in this country without a colonial past, as evidenced by the “Benin Switzerland” initiative led by eight Swiss museums concerning artifacts from the ancient kingdom of Benin or the restitution processes undertaken by the Geneva Museum of Ethnography. For Zurich lawyer Fabian Schmidt-Gabain, specialist in art law, “It is a “world first” that a commission generally examines cases of cultural property with a problematic past. Switzerland thus shows that cultural goods are not normal things and should not be treated as such. The fact that the commission was given broad competence contributes to its pioneering role. Not only cultural goods located in Switzerland fall under its jurisdiction, but also cultural goods which have been the subject of trade in Switzerland, but which are no longer found there today.»

Questions nevertheless remain about the nature of the commission, particularly that of its composition. Sitting on the “Limbach Commission” in Germany since 2016, Swiss historian Raphaël Gross therefore recommends that the future commission welcome representatives of the Jewish community.

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