1936–1959: The Collection of Emil Bührle
The first invoice, 1936


Emil Bührle began purchasing works of art in November 1936 to furnish the large house into which he and his family moved in autumn of the following year. His choice fell upon French painters of the Barbizon school, Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet, but also extended to classical Impressionists such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley. Most of his purchases were made from the Zurich gallery of Toni Aktuaryus. More expensive pieces were acquired from Siegfried Rosengart in Lucerne, including works by Edouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne. In June 1939 Bührle was one of the buyers at the auction of so-called “degenerate art” from German museums at Galerie Fischer in Lucerne. He bid unsuccessfully for the principal item, van Gogh’s Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin.

During the Second World War Emil Bührle purchased around 100 pictures, mainly by French Impressionists, from Swiss art dealers. From 1940 onwards, he increasingly sought advice from Fritz Nathan, a dealer based in St. Gallen. In autumn 1941, Bührle acquired five paintings in Paris. In 1942 and 1943 he purchased twelve works from Galerie Fischer and Galerie Aktuaryus that were identified as looted art after the war was over. The last item of looted art was obtained in summer 1944. All these pictures had been stolen from their Jewish owners in France by the “Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg”, which supplied them to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring for barter transactions in Switzerland.

In 1941, Emil Bührle offered the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft the sum of CHF 2 million to fund an extension for the Kunsthaus on Heimplatz. In 1943 he was the most important lender for an exhibition of “Foreign Art in Zurich” shown at the Kunsthaus. While Bührle kept his private collection strictly separate from the company’s collection, the construction of a works canteen in Oerlikon provided an opportunity to commission large-scale murals from Swiss artists. In 1945 Emil Bührle established the Goethe Foundation for Art and Science, and in the same year the Kunsthaus Zürich took over as organiser of the Prize for Swiss Painting which he had endowed.