Top Swiss museum refuses to restitute Rousseau painting

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Top Swiss museum refuses to restitute Rousseau painting
The Swiss city of Basel. Photo by Harald Hechler from Pexels.

Switzerland's prestigious Kunstmuseum Basel said Tuesday it would not be restituting a painting bought from a fleeing German countess in 1940, concluding that unlike Nazi loot, it was a "flight asset".


The art museum bought the French post-impressionist artist Henri Rousseau's 1909 work "La Muse inspirant le poète", pictured below in a tweet, from the German countess Charlotte von Wesdehlen, after she fled Berlin.

In 2021, lawyers for one of her successors approached the Basel museum with a request to investigate the purchase, and in 2022 sought its restitution.

But after a research process, the museum - which holds more than 300,000 works - concluded it was a so-called "flight asset", rather than an artwork given up as a result of Nazi persecution.

The findings "do not... support the right to restitution of the painting", the museum said in a statement.

"Rather, negotiations for a 'just and fair solution' have been advocated and have already begun."

In contrast with looted art, stolen from Jewish owners by Germany's Nazi regime, the museum defines flight assets as "works of art that owners who were persecuted by the Nazis managed to bring to a comparatively safe country such as Switzerland, and then sold there".

"Unlike with looted art, the owners sometimes got market-based prices for their art and were free to do with the money as they pleased. Still, these sales were ultimately prompted by the same Nazi policies of persecution, expropriation, and looting."

Von Wesdehlen, who died in 1946, was a naturalised Swiss citizen of Jewish origin from Germany, who had to leave her home in Berlin due to the Nazis, the museum said.


She sold the work because she needed money to support herself in Switzerland.

"The sale price was low; Georg Schmidt, the director of the Kunstmuseum Basel at the time, himself called it 'shamefully cheap'," said the museum.

The museum concluded that the circumstances of the sale did not warrant restitution, but rather that a "just and fair" solution be sought, in accordance with the Washington Principles on flight asset purchases.

The painting is currently in a special exhibition but when it moves back to the regular exhibition collection, a sign next to the painting will outline its origins.


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