Is Nazi Loot Amid His 6,000 Oils, Some Grenades and Napoleon’s Toothbrush?

Bruno Stefanini, a Swiss actual property magnate who died in 2018, spent his life accumulating big numbers of buildings, fantastic artwork and historic memorabilia, every little thing from castles to work to the toothbrush Napoleon is claimed to have used at Waterloo.

The gathering underwritten by his fortune grew to become large — greater than 100,000 items — and it included 6,000 oil work, lots of them by vital Swiss artists like Augusto Giacometti and Ferdinand Hodler.

“The sheer numbers are barely overwhelming,” mentioned Carolin Lange, head of provenance analysis at a basis Stefanini created in 1980 in an effort to shepherd all of it.

However Stefanini was higher at accumulating issues than caring for them.

Although he saved rents low as a landlord, lots of his properties had been so uncared for that officers in his dwelling metropolis, Winterthur, had been pressured to take motion.

Equally, some gadgets in his assortment grew to become contaminated with mildew, woodworm or worse — asbestos, mercury and radioactivity.

“He had a one-track thoughts,” his daughter, Bettina Stefanini, mentioned in an interview from Winterthur. “A part of his character was that he was boundless. Moneymaking was second nature to him. However he was not enthusiastic about caring for issues. That utilized to his total universe — his homes, even his clothes.”

Now Stefanini’s Basis for Artwork, Tradition and Historical past, led by his daughter, is attempting to wash issues up, not simply of grunge, however of any taint of Nazi-era looting. Beginning final yr, the inspiration started conducting analysis, led by Lange, to determine artwork with problematic possession histories or massive provenance gaps. (The gathering contains the works of artists recognized to have been prized by Adolf Hitler, resembling Carl Spitzweg and Arnold Böcklin.)

“You’ve an even bigger ethical obligation to do issues proper if you happen to can afford it,” Bettina Stefanini mentioned.

Different non-public collectors have carried out provenance analysis and returned works when warranted: Ronald S. Lauder’s Neue Galerie, as an illustration, has restituted two works from its assortment to the unique prewar homeowners after which re-acquired them.

However final month, Bettina Stefanini took it a step additional as she introduced that an impartial panel of specialists would consider the analysis and make binding selections on whether or not to return gadgets initially owned by Jews and deemed misplaced because of Nazi persecution.

The panel is led by Andrea Raschèr, a lawyer and former Swiss tradition ministry official who specialised in looted artwork and who mentioned they’re all dedicated to creating selections based mostly on worldwide requirements together with the 1998 Washington Rules on Nazi-Confiscated Artwork.

“It was essential to me to make sure that the fee has full autonomy in its decision-making and that the inspiration is obliged to comply with its selections,” he mentioned, including that the inspiration will enshrine this obligation in its laws.

In relation to public — versus non-public — collections, governments in France, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria have arrange impartial commissions to judge claims. Switzerland doesn’t have such a panel, although its nationwide parliament final yr urged the federal government to create one.

Stefanini mentioned she hopes Raschèr’s new panel will encourage open dialogue in Switzerland. “We wish to be brave and speak about issues that aren’t talked about,” she mentioned. “If we push the themes of provenance and possession, then we strengthen that discourse round museums.”

The provenance analysis is to be printed on the inspiration’s web site. Up to now the researchers have carried out a preliminary evaluate of works deemed probably to have been looted from Jewish homeowners or bought because of Nazi persecution. The evaluate discovered six out of 93 that raised suspicions and require nearer examination, although the inspiration has not launched the names of the person works.

The researchers are a part of a staff that has employed as many as 80 folks to wash, stock, {photograph} and pack 85,000 gadgets from the gathering so they’re able to be moved to a brand new storage facility to be constructed close to Winterthur. Every object was allotted a QR code to assist make sure that gadgets are simply recognized. Greater than 20,000 artworks on paper are but to be inventoried, Bettina Stefanini mentioned.

Even with so many individuals concerned, the duty forward is daunting. Bruno Stefanini was a fixture at Swiss and German auctions, recognized for his voracious, eclectic accumulating and his urge for food for the joys of aggressive bidding.

He acquired works by many Swiss artists together with Cuno Amiet, Albert Anker and Félix Vallotton. His assortment contains particular person items by famend ladies artists, amongst them Ottilie Wilhelmine Roederstein, Käthe Kollwitz, Meret Oppenheim and Niki de Saint Phalle.

However he additionally purchased dolls’ homes, sarcophagi, historic report gamers, an apartment-size mannequin circus, letters, pictures and the mahogany desk on which President John F. Kennedy signed a partial ban on nuclear testing in 1963. (He bought the desk at Sotheby’s in New York for $1.4 million in 1996.)

He acquired Napoleon’s gold-plated silver toothbrush, engraved along with his coat-of-arms, at public sale in Munich in 1988 — full with a notice from the British officer who claimed to have looted it after the Battle of Waterloo from the defeated emperor’s carriage.

His fascination for historic and cultural figures additionally led him to amass their clothes. The gathering features a prototype of the uniform Charlie Chaplin wore within the movie “The Nice Dictator,” Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s using boots and Normal Norman Schwarzkopf’s Gulf Warfare-era uniform. Amongst Stefanini’s darker purchases had been the clothes of these concerned within the post-World Warfare II Nuremberg Trials — each the jail uniforms of the accused and gadgets that belonged to the prosecutors.

His obsession with warfare, significantly World Warfare II, additionally led him to gather pistols, machine weapons, aerial bombs, grenades — even an entire tank. He saved them within the cavernous depot he had constructed underneath his citadel at Brestenberg, close to the Swiss metropolis of Aarau. Some nonetheless contained explosives.

In 2018, six months earlier than her father’s dying, Bettina Stefanini took management of his basis and the gathering that was scattered round his completely different properties, together with in 4 dilapidated castles. Some objects had been nonetheless within the auction-house packaging, untouched since he had purchased them.

The unexploded gadgets had been handed over to the police, who turned them over to the army. They had been detonated at a tank firing vary in an Alpine valley.

Bettina Stefanini mentioned the depot to be constructed close to Winterthur, known as the Campo, will probably be accessible to guests and elements of the gathering could also be placed on show. The muse doesn’t, nonetheless, plan to open a museum, she mentioned. As a substitute it’ll proceed to increase loans to museums — final yr 160 items had been lent out for exhibitions, she mentioned.

A documentary movie about her father’s life can be within the offing, she mentioned.

To analysis his life and assortment, the inspiration has opened dozens of banana containers stuffed along with his paperwork that had been stashed within the attics of assorted homes.

“It’s a really complete archive as a result of Bruno Stefanini didn’t throw a lot away,” mentioned Severin Rüegg, who’s in command of the gathering. “It’s info overkill — a bit disorientating. Nevertheless it’s vital for the provenance analysis, and we have to get a superb understanding of the gathering. To do this we’ve to know the individual higher — who he was as a collector.”