Uncertain Future for one of Switzerland’s Most Extensive Private Art Collections

Posted on: January 26, 2014 by

Over a span of thirty-five years, Werner Coninx, scion of a renowned publisher family from Zurich, established one of the most extensive private art collections in Switzerland.  At its peak, the collection consisted of c.14,500 artworks. While containing a few masterpieces by Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Ferdinand Hodler, the collection covers a wide range of lesser known Swiss, Asiatic and African art.

In 1973, Werner Coninx bequeathed his collection to a charitable foundation with the purpose of preserving his artworks and making them available to the public. As a result of the inadequate initial funding of Swiss Francs 50,000, the Coninx Foundation has been struggling financially ever since. The heirs of the late Werner Coninx stepped in and donated the donor’s mansion in Zurich and Swiss Francs 3 million to the Foundation. The money was spent quickly on major renovation works transforming the mansion into a museum.

Soon the board of directors had to look for new funds to maintain the museum and the collection. One source of income has been the sale of over 560 of the Foundation’s artworks, which required the Federal Supervisory Authority to approve an amendment of the deed of foundation. Among others, the board of directors sold a Sarnath-Buddha statue for USD 5 million at Christie’s in 2008. A Committee, led by the heirs of Werner Coninx, protested vehemently against this sale claiming that the statue belonged to the very core of the collection and thus the sale violated the Foundation’s purpose. As a result, the Federal Supervisory Authority barred the board of directors from further sales.

In 2011, the board of directors launched a new initiative to secure the Foundation’s long-term financial future. The idea was to sell the mansion in Zurich, valued in access of Swiss Francs 15 million, and move the collection to another part of Switzerland benefiting from lower maintenance costs. Again, the heirs filed a formal complaint with the Federal Supervisory Authority arguing that the initiative violated the purpose of the Foundation, in particular since it included the sale of Werner Coninx’s mansion. In addition, the heirs claimed that the Foundation had sufficient financial resources to fulfil the donor’s will and that the board of directors was not acting in the best interest of the Foundation (further details on the accusations are published on the Committee’s website: www.wernerconinx.ch).

In January 2014, the initiative was abandoned owing to the strict conditions of the Federal Supervisory Authority. (See art. 84 para. 2 Swiss Civil Code: “The supervisory authority must ensure that the foundation’s assets are used for their declared purpose.“) Thereafter, the entire board of directors resigned upon the recommendation of the Federal Supervisory Authority which wants a fresh start for the Foundation. An administrator has been appointed pending the formation of a new board of directors.

The case of the Coninx Foundation demonstrates the problems that arise when foundations are established with insufficient funds to fulfil their purpose and when the donor’s will does not allow for artworks to be sold to support the continuation of the foundation. Large art collections such as the Coninx collection need a significant amount of money for maintenance (e.g. cataloguing, renovation, storage, security and insurance). The question arises, whether the purpose of the Coninx Foundation can actually be achieved with the existing funds, taking into account the quality of the artworks.

The interpretation of the donor’s will is often ambiguous.  In the case at hand, the Coninx heirs and the board of directors often took fundamentally opposite views. Although the Coninx heirs are not directly involved in the running of the Foundation, they can to a certain degree control and limit the board of directors by means of complaints to the Federal Supervisory Authority. A practical solution would be to appoint the Coninx heirs onto the future board of directors.

The future of the Coninx Foundation remains uncertain.

Sources: Philipp Meier, ‘Stiftungsrat der Coninx-Stiftung tritt zurück – Letzer Akt eines langen Trauerspiels’, published on Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 7 Jan 2014;  Konrad Tobler, ‘Was hätte Werner Coninx gewollt?’, published in Tagesanzeiger on 4 Sept 2013, p. 25;  Ana Coninx/Pietro Suppino, ‘Nicht im Sinne des Stifters – Die Sammlung von Werner Coninx bewahren’, published on Neue Zürcher Zeiting on 6 May 2011; Philipp Meier, ‘Coninx-Museum zieht nach Glarus – Villa am Zürichberg soll verkauft werden’, published on Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 21 April 2011.