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

Bruno Stefanini, a Swiss real estate magnate who died in 2018, spent his life collecting huge numbers of buildings, fine art and historic memorabilia, everything from castles to paintings to the toothbrush Napoleon is said to have used at Waterloo.

The collection underwritten by his fortune became massive — more than 100,000 pieces — and it included 6,000 oil paintings, many of them by important Swiss artists like Augusto Giacometti and Ferdinand Hodler.

“The sheer numbers are slightly overwhelming,” said Carolin Lange, head of provenance research at a foundation Stefanini created in 1980 in an effort to shepherd it all.

But Stefanini was better at collecting things than caring for them.

Though he kept rents low as a landlord, many of his properties were so neglected that officials in his home city, Winterthur, were forced to take action.

Similarly, some items in his collection became contaminated with mildew, woodworm or worse — asbestos, mercury and radioactivity.

“He had a one-track mind,” his daughter, Bettina Stefanini, said in an interview from Winterthur. “Part of his personality was that he was boundless. Moneymaking was second nature to him. But he was not interested in caring for things. That applied to his entire universe — his houses, even his clothing.”

Bruno Stefanini routinely displayed his voracious collecting appetite and eclectic taste at auctions. Credit…Stiftung für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte

Now Stefanini’s Foundation for Art, Culture and History, led by his daughter, is trying to clean things up, not just of grunge, but of any taint of Nazi-era looting. Starting last year, the foundation began conducting research, led by Lange, to identify art with problematic ownership histories or large provenance gaps. (The collection includes the works of artists known to have been prized by Adolf Hitler, such as Carl Spitzweg and Arnold Böcklin.)

“You have a bigger moral obligation to do things right if you can afford it,” Bettina Stefanini said.

Other private collectors have conducted provenance research and returned works when warranted: Ronald S. Lauder’s Neue Galerie, for instance, has returned several works from its collection to the original prewar owners.

But last month, Bettina Stefanini took it a step further as she announced that an independent panel of experts would evaluate the research and make binding decisions on whether to return items originally owned by Jews and deemed lost due to Nazi persecution.

All five members of the new panel are Jewish. The panel is led by Andrea Raschèr, a lawyer and former Swiss culture ministry official who specialized in looted art and who said they are all committed to making decisions based on international standards including the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art.

“It was very important to me to ensure that the commission has complete autonomy in its decision-making and that the foundation is obliged to follow its decisions,” he said, adding that the foundation will enshrine this obligation in its regulations.

When it comes to public — as opposed to private — collections, governments in France, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria have set up independent commissions to evaluate claims. Switzerland does not have such a panel, though its national parliament last year urged the government to create one.

A self-portrait by Ferdinand Hodler, a Swiss artist, is among the thousands of paintings that Stefanini bought. No issue has been raised as to its provenance. Credit…Stiftung für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte

Stefanini said she hopes Raschèr’s new panel will encourage open discussion in Switzerland. “We want to be courageous and talk about things that are not talked about,” she said. “If we push the themes of provenance and ownership, then we strengthen that discourse around museums.”

The provenance research is to be published on the foundation’s website. So far the researchers have conducted a preliminary review of works deemed most likely to have been looted from Jewish owners or sold as a result of Nazi persecution. The review found six out of 93 that raised suspicions and require closer examination, though the foundation has not released the names of the individual works.

The researchers are part of a team that has employed as many as 80 people to clean, inventory, photograph and pack 85,000 items from the collection so they are ready to be moved to a new storage facility to be built near Winterthur. Each object was allocated a QR code to help ensure that items are easily identified. More than 20,000 artworks on paper are yet to be inventoried, Bettina Stefanini said.

Even with so many people involved, the task ahead is daunting. Bruno Stefanini was a fixture at Swiss and German auctions, known for his voracious, eclectic collecting and his appetite for the thrill of competitive bidding.

He acquired works by many Swiss artists including Cuno Amiet, Albert Anker and Félix Vallotton. His collection includes individual pieces by renowned women artists, among them Ottilie Wilhelmine Roederstein, Käthe Kollwitz, Meret Oppenheim and Niki de Saint Phalle.

But he also bought dolls’ houses, sarcophagi, historic record players, an apartment-size model circus, letters, photographs and the mahogany desk on which President John F. Kennedy signed a partial ban on nuclear testing in 1963. (He purchased the desk at Sotheby’s in New York for $1.4 million in 1996.)

Stefanini was particularly interested in historic memorabilia, such as this desk at which President John F. Kennedy in 1963 signed an agreement designed to partially ban the testing of nuclear weapons. Credit…Stiftung für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte
Stefanini bought a toothbrush said to have been used by Napoleon at Waterloo from a German auction house.Credit…Stiftung für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte

He acquired Napoleon’s gold-plated silver toothbrush, engraved with his coat-of-arms, at auction in Munich in 1988 — complete with a note 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 also led him to acquire their clothing. The collection includes a prototype of the uniform Charlie Chaplin wore in the film “The Great Dictator,” Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s riding boots and General Norman Schwarzkopf’s Gulf War-era uniform. Among Stefanini’s darker purchases were the clothing of those involved in the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials — both the prison uniforms of the accused and items that belonged to the prosecutors.

His obsession with war, particularly World War II, also led him to collect pistols, machine guns, aerial bombs, grenades — even a whole tank. He stored them in the cavernous depot he had built under his castle at Brestenberg, near the Swiss city of Aarau. Some still contained explosives.

Bettina Stefanini, the collector’s daughter, said it was important to ensure that any artwork purchased by her father be reviewed to determine whether it had ever been looted by the Nazis.Credit…Vera Markus

In 2018, six months before her father’s death, Bettina Stefanini took control of his foundation and the collection that was scattered around his different properties, including in four dilapidated castles. Some objects were still in the auction-house packaging, untouched since he had bought them.

The unexploded devices were handed over to the police, who turned them over to the military. They were detonated at a tank firing range in an Alpine valley.

Bettina Stefanini said the depot to be built near Winterthur, called the Campo, will be accessible to visitors and parts of the collection may be put on display. The foundation does not, however, plan to open a museum, she said. Instead it will continue to extend loans to museums — last year 160 pieces were lent out for exhibitions, she said.

A documentary film about her father’s life is also in the offing, she said.

To research his life and collection, the foundation has opened dozens of banana boxes stuffed with his documents that were stashed in the attics of various houses.

“It’s a very comprehensive archive because Bruno Stefanini didn’t throw much away,” said Severin Rüegg, who is in charge of the collection. “It’s information overkill — a bit disorientating. But it’s important for the provenance research, and we need to get a good understanding of the collection. To do that we have to understand the person better — who he was as a collector.”

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