Switzerland was one of the 44 states that approved the Washington Principles on Nazi-confiscated Art in December 1998. By doing so, the Swiss Confederation obliged itself to identify artworks in its collections that were looted during the Second World War, undertake efforts to locate their pre-War owners or legal successors, and take measures to achieve a just and fair solution. Prior to the Washington Principles coming into force, the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (SFOC) already examined the provenance of artworks in possession of the Swiss Confederation and, in August 1998, published its findings in a report.
However, owing to the federal structure of Switzerland, this exercise did not cover the c. 1,000 museums and collections owned by cantons, municipalities, and private individuals, as the Swiss Confederation lacks the competence to do so. The voluntary Survey on the State of Provenance Research in Swiss Museums, in which 416 non-federal institutions participated between July 2008 and October 2010, established that there are oftentimes still gaps in provenance research.
In the Dispatch on the Promotion of Culture for 2016-2020 (‘Kulturbotschaft’), the Swiss Federal Council has recognised the need for non-federal institutions to improve provenance research. (The Kulturbotschaft outlines the Swiss Federal Council’s cultural policy for the years 2016 to 2020.) The Swiss Federal Council emphasises in the Kulturbotschaft that “not adequately conducted provenance research poses a significant risk to the reputation of a state. Therefore, the Swiss Confederation expresses the wish that public and private owners of cultural property intensify their provenance research and provide the necessary financial resources.”
For the period 2016-2017, the Swiss Confederation will provide financial support to non-federal institutions for provenance research projects. The details of such support are governed in an ordinance that entered into force on 1 January 2016 (Verordnung des EDI über das Förderungskonzept 2016-2017 für die Unterstützung von Museen, Sammlungen und Netzwerken Dritter zur Bewahrung des kulturellen Erbes, ‘Ordinance 2016-2017’). It’s worth noting that the previous ordinance for the period 2012-2015 did not contain such provisions. This highlights the fact that provenance research has increasingly become a focus of the Federal Council’s cultural policy. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that the recent Gurlitt case has had an influence on this shift in focus.
The Federal Council has earmarked 400,000 Swiss Francs each year for provenance research projects, which the SFOC grants based on the following criteria: a) reputation and significance of the institution, b) cultural and artistic significance of the object, c) urgency of the measure, d) cost-benefit consideration, e) financial resources of the applicant and funds from third parties (see art. 6 Ordinance 2016-2017).
Financial contributions are capped at 50% of the project costs; there is also a minimum and maximum contribution per project of 20,000 Swiss Francs and 100,000 Swiss Francs, respectively (art. 11 lit. a Ordinance 2016-2017). Over the period 2016-2017, the SFOC will support a maximum number of 15 applicants (art. 12 para. 1 Ordinance 2016-2017). However, applicants have no entitlement to project contributions.
Applications can be sent to the SFOC until 30 April 2016.