Emil Georg Bührle
1890-1956, entrepreneur and art collector
Emil Bührle, ca. 1950


1945-1951: The post-war years

At the end of the war, Emil Bührle is confronted not only with a blanket export ban on war materiel, but also with the fact that his company has long been on the Western Allies' "black list". However, even before official deletion from the list in 1946, experts from the British Army have Oerlikon Bührle & Co. demonstrate the latest developments. In 1947, Emil Bührle stays in Chicago, where he conducts negotiations to supply the United States. He is unsuccessful in his attempts to obtain retroactive licensing fees for Oerlikon guns produced in the United States during the war. As of 1949, the Federal Council unilaterally relaxes the general export ban on war materiel towards the Western powers in order to position Switzerland in the incipient “Cold War” between the Eastern and Western blocs. In 1949 Emil Bührle establishes the Industrie- und Handelsbank Zürich (Industry and Trading Bank Zurich), which is headquartered in the Bleicherhof building belonging to him.

The number of paintings acquired decreases temporarily, but purchases include pictures that reveal Emil Bührle's increasingly ambitious attitude to collecting. In 1948 he takes over the pledged "Boy in the Red Waistcoat" by Paul Cézanne from the collection of the indebted G. F. Reber in Lausanne, and in 1949 acquires "La petite Irène" by Auguste Renoir from the sitter, Countess Irène Sampieri(-Camondo)-Cahen d'Anvers.

As of 1948, lawsuits establish the ownership of the pictures purloined in France at the chamber newly set up to assess the issue of looted art at the Swiss Federal Court in Lausanne. Emil Bührle owns 13 of the 77 pictures stolen in France and retrieved in Switzerland. The lawsuit between him and the dealer Paul Rosenberg, who now lives in New York, is the first to be concluded; other court decisions are taken in 1949. Emil Bührle subsequently proposes to buy the pictures from their owners a second time. Of the 13 looted paintings, nine thus become Bührle’s rightful property, and he returns the remaining four. The last transaction is concluded in February 1951. Emil Bührle's right of recourse is protected, as the Swiss Federal Court comes to the conclusion that Bührle could not have known about the pictures having been stolen in France.

In 1945, Emil Bührle establishes the Goethe Foundation for Art and Science. The same year, the Zurich Art Society organises the competition for a "Prize for Swiss Art" endowed by Bührle. In 1949, Emil Bührle donates Auguste Rodin's Gates of Hell to the Kunsthaus, paying for the sculpture with funds dedicated to the planned extension. Two large-format pictures of water lilies by Claude Monet selected for the Kunsthaus by Emil Bührle during a 1951 visit to Giverny are also acquired by the building fund.