Swiss Embassy Donated a Painting to the Berlin Museum

After years of dispute, the two countries came to an agreement that the Liebermann painting be kept at the Berlin museum

April 17th, 2019
Diana Usurelu, News from Berlin
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Photo by Hebbel am Ufel

The Swiss government has donated a painting by German Jewish artist Max Liebermann to the museum in his former home in Berlin, after years of dispute over who owns it and whether Switzerland has the right to give it away.

The 1923 painting, “Grosse Seestrasse,” depicts the road lined with oak trees near the villa on Berlin’s Wannsee lake where Liebermann spent his summers, a scene he painted about a dozen times. For decades, it hung in the office of the Swiss ambassador in Berlin but no one could quite remember how it got there.

Francois de Diesbach purchased the painting at the Berlin auction house Leo Spik in 1948, at that time the top Swiss diplomat in Germany. De Diesbach, a descendant of an aristocratic Bernese family, had no children. But two distant relatives emerged to claim the painting. The Swiss government said it could not respond to the claims until the relatives established between them who was de Diesbach’s rightful heir. It was however concluded that the Swiss government had gained legal title because it had possessed the painting for years in the belief that it was the rightful owner.

The High Court of Canton Bern confirmed the Swiss government’s ownership of the painting in 2018. The agreement between Villa Liebermann and the Swiss government includes a clause stipulating that if at any point it emerges that the painting was looted from Jews during the Nazi era, it will be restituted to the descendants of the original owner.

At today’s ceremony, Seger, the Swiss ambassador to Germany admitted to mixed feelings about parting with “Grosse Seestrasse.” “I am sad to be the first Swiss ambassador who won’t have this painting in his office,” he said. “But of course we are glad that it will be accessible to a broader public.”

Daniel Spanke, the director of Villa Liebermann, said that while the museum wants to expand its collection, it “can only afford to buy Liebermann paintings in the rarest of cases”.


News from Berlin