Questions About World War II Ties Again Haunt Christie’s as a Swiss Museum Plans to Sell Three Prized Cézanne Paintings
What facts should be disclosed about the family wealth behind such famous art collections?
It seems like a déjà vu. Less than a month ago, following public pressure, Christie’s canceled the sale of the second part of the jewelry collection of Heidi Horten, whose wealth was rooted in Nazi profiteering by her late husband. Now, the house is promoting another key consignment without being fully transparent about the Nazi-era history of the company behind the family that amassed the prized art.
The Brown Cézannes
This week, Christie’s announced it won three masterpiece paintings by Paul Cézanne for its 20th century evening sale on November 9 in New York. They come from the Museum Langmatt in Baden, Switzerland, which seeks to raise 40 million Swiss Francs for the foundation that operates it. Leading the trio is Fruits et pot de gingembre, painted in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and estimated at a hefty $35 million to $55 million.
A second painting in the consignment is Quatre pommes et un couteau, a small 1885 still life with four apples—one of Cézanne’s favorite subjects—estimated at $7 million to $10 million. The third is a landscape, La mer à l’Estaque, painted in the late 1870s, and estimated at between $3 million and $5 million.
In its promotional materials, Christie’s describes the Museum Langmatt as “home to one of the most extraordinary collections of Impressionist art in Europe, assembled with care and passion in the early 20th century by famed collectors Sidney and Jenny Brown.”
What Christie’s is not saying is that the electrical engineering company, Brown, Boveri & Cie. behind the Brown family fortune would go on to do business in Nazi Germany and use thousands of forced laborers. These activities included slave labor by concentration camp prisoners, according to a 2002 report by Swiss government’s Independent Commission of Experts on the Second World War. (Today, Brown, Boveri & Cie is a global giant known as ABB; it reported $31 billion in revenue as of June 30.)
It’s easy to see why Christie’s would not want to broadcast this information. It’s disturbing. It’s also awkward to have such nefarious history connected to the auction lineup that includes restituted works by Egon Schiele that were stolen by the Nazis from Fritz Grünbaum, a Jewish cabaret performer murdered at the Dachau concentration camp in 1941.
You can also see why Christie’s would very much want the paintings: the auction house lost several major consignments for the upcoming November sales to its rival, Sotheby’s. There is tremendous pressure to meet the bottomline and preserve market share. And the background is less cut-and-dried than in the Horton case.
You can imagine the boardroom discussions of the pros and cons of leaning into greater transparency in this case and others. Such conversations will become more common as the “Greatest Wealth Transfer in History” propels prized art collections to the auction block alongside greater public scrutiny of the source of family fortunes.
“It Should Be Important”
Christie’s representative said that the company is “committed to continue widening the lens through which we examine and consider new sales, and in particular the facets that shape how we explore histories that engage with Europe in the 20th century.”
In addition to doing provenance research on the works, Christie’s has implemented internal processes to review the source of wealth used to acquire the works of art, “particularly when this wealth was built during the Nazi period from 1933-1945,” according to its website.
The three Cézannes were acquired in 1933, and “thus with wealth acquired prior to 1933,” Christie’s confirmed after The Art Detective’s inquiry.
But the Museum Langmatt itself notes the use of forced labor by a Brown, Boveri & Cie. subsidiary, though without ever mentioning slave labor or concentration camps. (The technical difference between “forced labor” and “slave labor” often came down to the conditions of work and treatment for laborers, many of whom worked for free and were considered “subhuman,” according to the 2002 Swiss report.)
Christie’s lack of mention of Brown, Boveri & Cie’s wartime activities in Germany doesn’t sit well with David de Jong, the author of Nazi Billionaires, a book about trans-generational wealth amassed during the Third Reich. If the connection is important enough for the Museum Langmatt to mention on its own website, “so it should be important for those who are auctioning it off,” de Jong said, referring to Christie’s. “Particularly in the context of what just happened with Heidi Horten’s collection.”
In that case, Christie’s initially failed to disclose that Horten’s late husband, Helmut Horten, took part in the country’s Aryanization program by buying Jewish businesses under duress at steep discounts.
That omission resulted in a public relations debacle for the auction house—even as it raked in record $202 million from the sale of the first part of the collection. At the end of August, the company canceled the sale of the remaining 300 lots of Horten gems.
“The sale of the Heidi Horten jewelry collection has provoked intense scrutiny, and the reaction to it has deeply affected us and many others, and we will continue to reflect on it,” Anthea Peers, President of Christie’s EMEA, said at the time.
And yet, here we are all over again.
At the very end of Christie’s press release about the Museum Langmatt consignment (as well as all the way down on its website’s relevant page), there’s a brief paragraph, titled “Additional Historical Background.” It states:
The Villa Langmatt and all of the artwork that comprises the collection of the Museum Langmatt in Baden were privately acquired by Sidney and Jenny Brown beginning in 1896, with the majority of their Impressionist art collected between 1908-1919. Additional historical information can be found on the museum’s website: https://www.langmatt.ch/en/langmatt/history.
The link takes you to the “History” tab on the museum website. It has three sections: “The Art Collection,” “The Architecture and Park,” and “The Patron’s Family.” The “Family” section traces the origins of Brown, Boveri & Cie. (BBC) to Charles Brown Senior (1827-1905), engineer, inventor, and the company co-founder; as well as to his brother Sidney William Brown (1865–1941), a technical director and board member at the company until 1935.
When Hitler came to power in 1933—the same year the prized Cézanne paintings were acquired—Brown, Boveri & Cie, like many other Swiss conglomerates, continued to do business with the new regime. The family retained its ties to the company. For example, the eldest son of Sidney and Jenny worked in its legal department starting in 1940, later serving as its general secretary from 1948 to 1965, according to the spokesperson for the Museum Langmatt.
At the time of his death in 1941, Sidney Brown’s estate included company shares worth 75,000 Swiss francs, according to a spokesperson for the Museum Langmatt. It remains unclear who inherited the shares and how their value changed as the company grew during the war and beyond.
“It has been documented that during WWII, BBC’s German subsidiary used forced labor to expand its operations,” the museum’s website outlines, offering links to two reports. One is a 90-page Holocaust settlement distribution by Swiss banks in 2019, the other, the 597-page study of forced and slave labor by Swiss companies, published in 2002. (ABB, the contemporary version of the company, “admitted slave labor had been used at their German sites and [has] paid compensation,” according to the New York Times.)
Figuring all this out takes time and effort. But the bottom line is chilling: Brown, Boveri & Cie. had as many as 2,008 forced laborers on record at its German operations, almost a quarter of its total workforce in the country, during the war. Sales at the German arm of the BBC group rose 30 percent to 177 million Reichsmarks from 1939 to 1943 while the net profit for the years 1940 to 1943 totaled 6 million Reichsmarks, according to the 2002 report.
“The BBC subsidiary Stotz-Kontakt employed prisoners from the Buchenwald concentration camp over several months, and it is also highly likely that concentration camp inmates were used during the construction of the power station built by BBC for the IG Farben plant in Auschwitz,” the report said.
Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl wrote about working for a construction company during his imprisonment at Auschwitz in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, which sold 16 million copies and has been translated into 52 languages since its publication in 1946.
At one time, my job was to dig a tunnel, without help, for a water main under a road. This feat didn’t go unrewarded; just before Christmas 1944, I was presented with a gift of so-called “premium coupons.” These were issued by the construction firm to which we were practically sold as slaves: the firm paid the camp authorities a fixed price per day, per prisoner. The coupons cost the firm fifty pfennigs each and could be exchanged for six cigarettes, often weeks later, although they sometimes lost their validity. I became the proud owner of a token worth twelve cigarettes. But more important, the cigarettes could be exchanged for twelve soups, and twelve soups were often a very real respite from starvation.
The Need for Transparency
As time marches on, it’s easy to become desensitized to the unthinkable depravity that took place during World War II. Whitewashing by companies doesn’t help, which makes full transparency about the past all the more crucial.
“If there’s any hint of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocidal involvement there should be a disclosure, whether it’s with regards to Russian oligarchs profiting off of the war in Ukraine or colonial fortunes made by royal families,” de Jong said.
Historical transparency should be key to how auction houses approach consignments, he continued. “There’s a new era where companies should be radically transparent, and inform consumers beforehand about what they are buying into.”
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