Swiss say philanthropist collector is senile and have blocked his foundations, art and money

Legal battle over Dr Gustav Rau’s paintings, which he wants to give to Unicef, and which are on loan to Paris



Dr Gustav Rau is fighting to regain control of one the world’s most important private collections of paintings, many of which are on show (until 4 January) at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris.

Although a German citizen, his pictures had all been kept near Zurich and the Swiss authorities are trying to ensure their return from Paris, following a legal ruling that 78-year-old Dr Rau is incapable of administering his own affairs.

But Dr Rau believes that this intervention is happening because he is not setting up a museum in Switzerland, and the Swiss want to prevent the collection going abroad.

Having worked for much of his life in a hospital in the Congo, Dr Rau wants his artworks to benefit the Third World, and he has made a new will bequeathing them to Unicef. His hundreds of paintings, spanning five centuries of European art, are reputed to be worth around £300 million (see The Art Newspaper, No. 107, October 2000, p. 31).

Eight years ago Dr Rau was forced to flee the Congo, where he ran a hospital, because of civil war. He initially went to Zurich, and then retired to Stuttgart, where he now lives in a clinic outside the city. However, the bulk of Dr Rau’s paintings are still stored in a freeport near Zurich airport, at Embrach. Three of Dr Rau’s foundations are also registered in Switzerland: the Rau Foundation for the Third World, the Rau Foundation for Art and the Rau Foundation for Medicine.

The legal dispute dates back three years, and in the summer of 1998 the Swiss Federal Supervisory Board for Foundations intervened, “sealing” the art collection in the Embrach depot.

This means that Dr Rau in his final years is being denied the opportunity to live with the pictures he has amassed over the past four decades. According to a Supervisory Board spokesman, the action was taken after a former trusted friend of Dr Rau, who was also a foundation member had “alleged that Dr Rau and other foundation members were endangering the assets of the Rau Foundation for the Third World.”

Legal action was also taken declare that Dr Rau no longer had the mental capacity to run his affairs. Zurich lawyer Stefan Eschmann was then appointed to administer his foundations. Although Dr Rau has appealed against the decision to transfer power of attorney, it was confirmed in November 1999 by the Swiss Federal Tribunal, the highest court. Last March his Swiss bank accounts were blocked.

Meanwhile Dr Rau, a German citizen and now a resident, has changed his will. He revoked a July 1997 decision to donate his collection to a Lichtenstein foundation, Crelona, which is run by the lawyer Alexander De Beer.

In August 1999 he made a new will, bequeathing the paintings to Unicef. He has also gone to the German courts, which contrary to the Swiss courts have ruled that he is capable of administering his affairs. This ruling was given on 10 October last by the Baden-Baden tribunal, but its jurisdiction does not extend to Switzerland. Le Figaro talked with Dr Rau last month, and during an extensive interview he appeared alert, recounting the events which have clouded the last few years. “It is a scandal,” he commented. Musée du Luxembourg director Marc Restellini also says that he personally believes that Dr Rau is “100% capable of running his affairs”.

International tour

These legal wrangles have now complicated the exhibition of Dr Rau’s collection. In September 1999 Dr Rau wanted to send his paintings on show to Japan, and the Swiss Federal Supervisory Board for Foundations only approved the loan on condition that the works were afterwards returned directly to the Embrach depot and “the question of the ownership of the pictures remains open”. On 24 May 2000, when it became clear that the pictures might not come back from Japan, the Federal Department of Home Affairs issued an order reminding the responsible parties to respect their conditions.

At this point, an exhibition of the Rau collection was arranged at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, entitled “From Fra Angelico to Bonnard” Although the bulk of the 106 paintings belong to Dr Rau personally, 10 are the property of the Rau Foundation (works by Mandyn, Cranach, Van Winghe, Corot, Degas, Renoir, Severini, Hodler, Vuillard and Munch). In addition to these 10 works, the foundation owns 22 other important paintings. Dr Rau personally owns a further 300 or so paintings (plus 200 sculptures), which are also kept in the foundation’s store at Embrach.

According to Alvar Spring, of the Swiss Federal Supervisory Board for Foundations, “ownership of the Rau Collection has not been decided upon and this question has to be considered by the relevant courts.” However, the immediate issue is what will happen to the hundred or so masterpieces which are currently on display at the Musée du Luxembourg, following the show’s closure this month. The fact that the gallery is under the control of the French Senate makes the matter particularly delicate, adding a diplomatic dimension to the dispute. Meanwhile Dr Rau fears that the Rau Foundation for the Third World may sell paintings in order to raise money to pay its expenses and pursue its legal claims.

To add to these difficulties, there is a further legal problem over one of the paintings currently on show in Paris. Cézanne’s “La mer à l’Estaque” has become the subject of a World War II claim, from the descendants of Josse Bernheim-Jeune. The Rewald catalogue raisonné records that the Cézanne was once owned by Bernheim-Jeune and at an unspecified date it passed to New York collector Sam Salz, and successively, Mr and Mrs Richard Bernhard in New York, Wildenstein and a private European collection, before being sold at Sotheby’s on 30 June 1981, when it was bought by Dr Rau in good faith.

Josse Bernheim-Jeune’s grandsons Michel and Guy-Patrice Dauberville now point out that “La mer à l’Estaque” is listed in the Repertoire de biens spoliés as lost by Bernheim-Jeune during World War II (although the dimensions appear to be slightly different from the Rau picture).

On 5 October the Bernheim-Jeune family obtained a Paris court order to seize the picture, although it was agreed that it could remain on show at the Musée du Luxembourg until the close of show. It is on show with a notice saying that Dr Rau “wishes to contribute to the discovery of the truth.”

The Cézanne could now become the subject of a triangular tug of war, between the Bernheim-Jeune descendants, Dr Rau and the Swiss authorities.