1890 – 1956 Emil Georg Bührle – industrialist and art collector
Emil Bührle, ca. 1924

1924–1939: Comes to Switzerland and becomes an entrepreneur

At the beginning of 1924 Emil Bührle was sent by his employer to Zurich, where he took over as head of the Schweizerische Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Oerlikon (Swiss Machine Tool Factory Oerlikon), which the Magdeburg firm had purchased the previous year. In the summer of 1924, Bührle acquired 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 was taken in connection with Germany’s covert rearmament programme, which was moved to production sites in neutral foreign countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland after the 1919 Treaty of Versailles imposed an almost complete ban on the German armaments industry. With financial aid from the Ordnance Department of the German Military Command in Berlin, the Becker cannon was subsequently technically perfected in Oerlikon. Thanks to a delivery of 120 guns to General Chiang Kai-shek in China, the Oerlikon factory also became an important client for suppliers in Switzerland, including the weapons factories of the Swiss Army. Now with a family of four, Bührle spent these years living at various addresses in Zurich, expecting to return to Germany once his work in Switzerland was complete.

In 1929 Ernst Schalk became the majority shareholder in the company. Bührle, his son-in-law, had by this time acquired licensees in Italy, Germany and Japan; contracts in Europe and South America distributed the anti-aircraft guns from Oerlikon throughout the world. When Germany openly began to rearm under the Nazi regime, German armaments companies offered stiff competition for Switzerland’s export-dependent armaments industry. This rendered the large orders received by the Oerlikon factory and other manufacturers in Switzerland from Belgium, France and the United Kingdom all the more significant. In 1938 Emil Bührle became sole owner of the limited partnership Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Oerlikon Bührle & Co (Machine Tool Factory Oerlikon Bührle & Co.). In the same year, a new article in the Swiss Constitution for the first time gave the Swiss Federal Council responsibility for controlling the production and export of war materiel.

In March 1937, Emil Bührle acquired Swiss citizenship and, in autumn of that year, moved into a large residence at Zollikerstrasse 178 in Zurich with his family. In 1938 his wife acquired the neighbouring house at Zollikerstrasse 172. It was partly occupied by her parents, who had moved to Switzerland, and was soon also used to store pictures. In 1939, the Hotel zum Storchen built by Emil Bührle was opened by the Limmat River in central Zurich.