Emil Georg Bührle
1890-1956, entrepreneur and art collector
Emil Bührle, ca. 1924

1924-1929: First years in Switzerland

At the beginning of 1924, Emil Bührle arrives in Zurich, where his employer has taken over the Schweizerische Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Oerlikon (Swiss Machine Tool Factory Oerlikon) the previous year. In the summer of 1924, Bührle acquires the patent for a 20-mm gun developed by the German engineer Reinhold Becker from the bankruptcy assets of Maschinenbau AG Seebach (Seebach Engineering Ltd). This step is taken in connection with the so-called “covert German armament”, which takes place in production plants outside Germany, in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland, after the Treaty of Versailles enforces an almost complete prohibition of the German armaments industry. With financial aid from the German Ordnance Department of the German Military Command in Berlin, the “Becker cannon” is subsequently technically perfected in Oerlikon. Thanks to a delivery of 120 guns to China to General Chiang Kai-shek, the Oerlikon factory becomes an important client for suppliers in Switzerland, including the weapons factories of the Swiss Army. In 1929, Bührle’s father-in-law Ernst Schalk becomes a majority shareholder in the company. Emil Bührle lives at various addresses in the City of Zurich with his family, which has now grown to four members.

1930-1939: Self-employed entrepreneur, first art acquisitions

Emil Bührle acquires licensees for his company in Italy, Germany and Japan; contracts in Europe and South America distribute the anti-aircraft guns from Oerlikon throughout the world. In 1938, Emil Bührle becomes the sole owner of the joint-stock company Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Oerlikon Bührle & Co. (Machine Tool Factory Oerlikon Bührle & Co.), which he henceforth runs independently as a shareholder with unlimited liability. When Germany openly begins to rearm under the Nazi regime, German armaments companies offer stiff competition for Switzerland’s armaments industry. This renders the large orders received as of 1938 by the Oerlikon factory and other manufacturers in Switzerland from Belgium, France and the United Kingdom all the more significant. In the same year, a new article in the constitution for the first time imposes control of the production and export of war materiel on the Swiss Federal Council.

In March 1937, Emil Bührle acquires Swiss citizenship and moves into a large house on Zollikerstrasse in Zurich with his family at the end of the year. With this in mind, he starts to purchase pictures for his living quarters as of November 1936. These acquisitions include works by French painters of the Barbizon School such as Camille Corot, Adolph Monticelli and Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, but also by classic impressionist artists like Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley. Emil Bührle buys most of his pictures from the Zurich gallery owned by Toni Aktuaryus. He acquires more expensive paintings from Siegfried Rosengart in Lucerne, including works by Edouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne. In 1938, Emil Bührle buys the neighbouring house at Zollikerstrasse 172. Part of it is inhabited by his parents-in-law, and part of it is used to store pictures. In 1939, the Hotel zum Storchen built by Emil Bührle is opened in the centre of Zurich. It incorporates the guildhall of the Zurich Mariners’ Guild.