Swiss bank accounts trace Nazi art deals

Newly declassified records track the deposit of Nazi assets in Swiss banks—they include references to works of art


Over the past year, the veil of secrecy over Swiss bank accounts has been lifted slightly to expose some of the assets of Jewish Holocaust victims which were virtually untraceable since the 1940s.

Now other records of the movement of assets through Switzerland during the Nazi era have been declassified, and new revelations about the transfer of art via Switzerland are anticipated. These records have not surfaced from the depths of Swiss bank vaults. Since the war, they have been kept under lock and key in the National Archives in Washington DC. These records track the deposit of Nazi assets in Swiss banks, as part of a US effort to monitor “enemy assets”.

For restitution experts, Switzerland is an obvious target for scrutiny. In the 1930s and 1940s, that was the place to take art and sell it. All the “degenerate art”—paintings and other works of the twentieth century scorned by the Nazis—was sold through Switzerland. The munitions magnate Emil Buehrle became one of the world’s principal collectors during that time, and in the words of one researcher, Galerie Fischer in Lucerne, where much of that art was auctioned, “stunk to the sky” from its trade with the Nazis. It was not difficult for the Germans to find collaborators wherever they went. It is more than likely that traces of their art dealings are to be found in Switzerland.

A clear pattern is emerging from the investigation so far, says an aide to US Senate Banking Committee’s chairman, Alphonse D’Amato: “the Swiss were laundering a lot of this stuff, which includes diamonds from Antwerp and gold by the ton”. Switzerland was notorious as a destination for the gold removed from the teeth of Nazi death camp victims. Pressure from heirs of those victims influenced the Senate Banking Committee’s move to open the files in the National Archives.

The files now in the US National Archives date back to consular records from 1935, a spokesman explained, and works of art figure throughout the dealings between the Swiss and the German Reich: “We don’t have said painting going from said country to said dealer in Switzerland and on to whatever gallery, but the documents do refer to particular paintings going through Switzerland. Who bought them, we don’t know. We can place certain paintings in certain places, if it’s accurate”. Paintings that passed through Switzerland have been traced to shipments abroad via Spain and Portugal after the war, and then to South America. Researchers also expect to reconstruct a “pipeline” from Switzerland to the New York market in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The trade between Swiss dealers and Vichy France will also be examined.

What researchers in art and banking records are discovering today is old news in a sense, since there was a moral outcry fifty years ago, when families tried with little success to recover lost property from Swiss banks, which until recently charged high fees to consult limited files. The current investigations reflect unfinished business, the resumption of an earlier effort to clean unexamined archives out, get access to the files and determine where the assets (looted or not looted) in the banks originated.

Once the Americans “defrosted” the Swiss assets in the United States after the German surrender (the US froze Swiss assets during the war because Swiss trade with the Nazis was so extensive), the Swiss government clung fiercely to its neutrality and to the secrecy of banking records against US claims to jurisdiction over enemy assets that had been deposited on Swiss territory. By that time, with the war over, the United States was more preoccupied with its Soviet enemy to the East than with Swiss bankers. The result was that the lid on Swiss accounts remained tightly shut, as did the records in the United States.

“My interest is to get away from the Haberstocks [Karl Haberstock, the Nazi dealer] and the Goerings and the other Nazis who did the plundering and look at what their business associates did”, said Willi Korte, the researcher who has begun to examine the documents at the National Archives. Korte reports that although most of the scrutiny of Swiss records has been on bank accounts, the heirs of collectors from before the war are starting to appear in the United States to make claims. Research will be conducted, Korte hopes, with the help of the Holocaust Museum in Washington and other Jewish organizations.

“It’s one thing to go after a Nazi war criminal”, he said. “You can knock on his door and sooner or later, he’ll open it and you’ll get some nasty details. It’s another thing to go after Swiss financial institutions and the secrets of how they made money during the war. This is it. It’s one of the last unsolved mysteries of World War II”.

Since Switzerland’s statutes of limitation preclude recovery of almost any property from the Nazi era, restitution battles are likely to be waged over works of art that, according to the newly opened records, passed through this neutral country to the US.