Emil Georg Bührle
1890-1956, entrepreneur and art collector
The Machine Tool Factory Oerlikon Bührle & Co.


1939-1945: Second World War

The German occupation of France in the summer of 1940 prevents Oerlikon Bührle & Co from continuing to supply the British and French armies. For political reasons and supported by the new article in the Swiss Constitution governing the origins and distribution of war materiel, the Swiss military authorities prompt Emil Bührle to supply Germany with guns and ammunition. Based on plans sold by Bührle to the British Admiralty before the war, Oerlikon guns are also produced in Britain and the United States at the same time. For large deliveries to Germany and Italy, the Oerlikon factory at times employs considerably more than 3,000 staff. On 26 September 1944, the Swiss Federal Council imposes a complete export ban on war materiel, which remains in force for almost a year. Emil Bührle continues to occupy his development department and specialist employees, and invests increasingly in civilian products.

In the war years, Emil Bührle acquires approximately 100 pictures, mostly by French painters of the 19th century. In the autumn of 1941, he buys five paintings in Paris. In 1942/43, he acquires, among other works, twelve pictures by French impressionist artists from Galerie Fischer in Lucerne and Galerie Aktuaryus in Zurich which, shortly after the end of the war, are discovered to have been stolen from their Jewish owners by German officials. The German Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring had subsequently deposited them in Switzerland for use in barter transactions. A last looted picture enters Bührle’s collection in the summer of 1944 through a private intermediary.

In 1941, Emil Bührle offers the Zurich Art Society the prospect of an endowment of two million Swiss francs with which to fund an extension for the Kunsthaus on Heimplatz. In 1943 he is the most important lender for an exhibition of "Foreign Art in Zurich" shown at the Kunsthaus. When a canteen is built in Oerlikon, Bührle commissions large-scale murals from leading Swiss artists. Numerous pictures by contemporary Swiss painters are also displayed at the factory, although Bührle keeps them strictly separate from his collection of international artists.

The wartime regulations governing extensions to industrial premises prompt Emil Bührle to acquire agricultural land in the Maggia Delta in the Ticino, where he establishes a model plant. The neighbouring “Castello del Sole” is later converted into a hotel. In 1942, the Old-Catholic church erected with Emil Bührle’s help is consecrated in Oerlikon. Bührle also contributes pictures and sculptures to decorate the interior of the church.