1936–1959: The Collection of Emil Bührle
Contract with P. Rosenberg, 1948

The looted art trials and the administration of the collection

Under pressure from the Allies as the Second World War drew to a close, a targeted search for pictures looted by the Germans was undertaken in Switzerland. In all 77 looted artworks were identified, 13 of which were held by Emil Bührle. Of the total, 37 belonged to the Parisian dealer Paul Rosenberg, who had left them behind when he fled to the United States. The lawsuit between Rosenberg and Bührle before the chamber on looted art of the Swiss Federal Supreme Court in Lausanne was treated as a test case, and was the first to be concluded, in 1948. Four more judgments regarding Bührle from the Supreme Court followed, which ruled that the pictures had been stolen contrary to international law and ordered their restitution.

Paul Rosenberg, who had been running a gallery in New York since 1940 and approached Bührle personally in 1945 in connection with the looted artworks, was the collector’s first encounter with a dealer of international scope who, for his part, soon recognised Bührle as an important potential client. Once the lawsuits had been settled, Emil Bührle offered to purchase the looted works a second time from Rosenberg and from the other legitimate owners who had now been identified, or their heirs. In this way, nine of the 13 looted pictures became Bührle’s rightful property while four were returned; seven of the re-acquired works are still held by the Foundation today. The last transaction was completed in February 1951. At the same time, the purchase price paid by Bührle was returned to him by the sellers, the Supreme Court having concluded that he could not have known the works had been looted in France and had acquired them in good faith.

From the start of 1948, Bührle engaged Walter Drack to act as his private secretary and collection curator at his residence. Drack was charged with systematically compiling provenance and bibliographical information on the works purchased. He drew up a comprehensive card index of the collection in which he also recorded the earlier purchases. His task was made difficult by the fact that many dealings related to the purchases were conducted during Bührle's many travels abroad, or at the factory in Oerlikon. It was here that payments were made and a second archive of correspondence was kept. The dealers selling the works were also often reluctant to disclose their sources.

Drack was succeeded in 1956 by Peter Dietschi. Thanks to the efforts of the two private secretaries, the Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection possesses an archive that is extensive compared with other collections from the 1950s. It forms the basis for provenance research that discloses and constantly updates the origin of all the paintings and sculptures held by the Foundation.