Emil Georg Bührle

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Emil Georg Bührle
Born 31 August 1890
Pforzheim, Germany
Died 26 November 1956
Zürich, Switzerland
Residence Zürich
Known for industrialist and art collector

Emil Georg Bührle (31 August 1890 in Pforzheim – November 26, 1956 in Zürich) was an industrialist, art collector and patron. His art collection is now housed in the Foundation E.G. Bührle.

After studying philosophy, literature, history and art history in Freiburg, Bührle went to Munich. From 1914 to 1919 he was a German cavalry officer in the imperial army. In 1919 he joined the Magdeburg Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik and rose up to become a legal representative. The Magdeburger Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik bought the Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Oerlikon in 1923, and Bührle became the CEO the following year. In the same year he was moved to Zurich. In 1929, Bührle became the majority shareholder of the Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Oerlikon and in 1936 he became the sole owner of the company (later the Oerlikon-Bührle Holding AG). Also in 1936, Bührle obtained Swiss citizenship.

From his 1920 marriage with Charlotte Schalk came two children. The following foundations are attributed to Emil Bührle: Emil Bührle Foundation for the Swiss literature (1943), Goethe Foundation for Art and Science (1944) and the Foundation of the cultivation of the Kunsthaus Zurich (1954).


Emil George Bührle's role as an industrialist has been controversial in recent decades. Although he converted the almost bankrupt Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Oerlikon into a thriving company, his main business became arms production and export. Before the second world war the Oerlikon-Bührle company supplied the Republicans in Spain (i.e. Franco opponents), the independent Abyssinia (in the colonial war against fascist Italy), along with several Baltic countries, Czechoslovakia, Greece, China, Turkey, France, Holland and Britain. In the period from 1940 - 1944, with Switzerland then completely surrounded by fascist countries (Italy, Germany) and fascist-occupied countries (Austria, France), and at the request of the Swiss government, the company also supplied weapons to Germany and Italy.

Art collector[edit]

Bührles first acquisitions were two 1920 watercolours by Erich Heckel, followed in 1924 by a picture of Maurice de Vlaminck. The present day make up of the Bührle collection started in 1936, when financial conditions were very favourable. The largest part of his collection (ca.75%) was acquired from 1951 to 1956. Among others, Bührle was advised by Nathan Fritz, a gallery owner, and a small circle of international dealers in Paris, London and New York, in addition to which included Georges Wildenstein, Paul Rosenberg, and also Max Kaganovitch and Frank Lloyd of the Marlborough Gallery. The collection includes medieval sculptures and old masters, mainly French Impressionism and classical modernism, including masterpieces by Paul Cézanne (The Boy with a Red Vest), Pierre-Auguste Renoir (La petite Irène) and Vincent van Gogh (The Sower (after Millet))). Bührle continued the tradition of collectors in Germany, Scandinavia, Britain and the USA, who - before the First World War and in the inter-war years - centred their interest on French modernism. An example of this trend in Switzerland is the "Am Römerholz" collection by Oskar Reinhart in nearby Winterthur. Two-thirds of the collection now displayed were acquired in 1960 by the heirs to the E.G. Bührle Foundation, and have since been introduced to the public. In addition, the remaining family-owned works of art were often shown in exhibitions. An exhibition featuring several works of the collection in 1990 in Washington D.C. led to protests and discussions in the media due to Bührle's role as a weapons exporter in the Second World War and the sometimes unclear origin of the pictures, some of which were formerly Jewish-owned. Following the findings of an "Independent Commission of Swiss Second World War Experts", Bührle had to return 13 paintings of French-Jewish origin to their former owners or their second-generation descendants.

Further reading[edit]

  • Christen, Ruedi: Die Bührle-Saga. Zürich 1981 ISBN 3-85791-033-X
  • Esther Tisa Francini, Anja Heuss, Georg Kreis: Fluchtgut – Raubgut. Der Transfer von Kulturgütern in und über die Schweiz 1933–1945 und die Frage der Restitution. Zürich 2001 ISBN 3-0340-0601-2
  • Heller, Daniel: Zwischen Unternehmertum, Politik und Überleben. Emil G. Bührle und die Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Oerlikon, Bührle & Co. 1924–1945. Frauenfeld, Stuttgart & Wien 2002 ISBN 3-7193-1277-1
  • Hug, Peter: Schweizer Rüstungsindustrie und Kriegsmaterialhandel zur Zeit des Nationalsozialismus: Unternehmensstrategien – Marktentwicklung – politische Überwachung. Zürich 2002 ISBN 3-0340-0611-X

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