Before the Start

Painted in 1878/80 by Edgar Degas. Stolen from the Jewish collector Paul Rosenberg in 1941.

The painting Before the Start by Edgar Degas has a turbulent history. It once belonged to the French-Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg, who was an important gallery owner and collector in Paris. His collection of Impressionist paintings was considered one of the most important of its time.1 After the Nazi invasion of Paris, Rosenberg was forced to close his gallery and flee the country. Like countless other works, this painting was confiscated by the «Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg» and handed over personally to Hermann Göring in September 1941. A few months later, in April 1942, the Nazis exchanged it with the Lucerne gallery owner Theodor Fischer for other works that were more in keeping with their taste and ideal of art. Through these coincidences, Emil Bührle finally got his chance, and in the same month he was able to pounce and secure the painting for his own rapidly growing collection.

In June 1948, as part of the so-called «looted property trials» or «Raubgutprozesse», the Swiss Federal Court ruled that Bührle had to return this and other works to their rightful owner Paul Rosenberg. But this painting must have grown dear to Bührle’s heart: A year later, he bought it back from Rosenberg. Since then, the painting has become an indispensable part of the Bührle Collection in Zurich, which today is touted as the «largest Impressionist collection in Europe»2.

The journey this work has taken is narrated by the Kunsthaus as part of the story of a great collector with an even greater passion for Impressionists. This story was regrettably accompanied by a terrible injustice, which was, however, adequately atoned for in the looted property trials. All’s well that ends well.

What fits less well with this narrative is how Bührle fought tooth and nail against the restitution of his looted art: the arms supplier testified in court that even in 1942, when he bought the work from Lucerne gallery owner Theodor Fischer, he had known nothing about the expropriation of Jewish property by the Nazis.

«I didn’t have any specific reasons to ask questions at the time. However, I was surprised that now all of a sudden Fischer had a selection in rare abundance to show. Fischer is a very well-known dealer, and I simply assumed that he had succeeded in tracking down a favourable acquisition opportunity [...]. The expropriation of Jewish art property by Germans in occupied countries had not yet become known at all. I personally was not aware of a single case of this kind in Germany. I heard that some enterprises had been ‹aryanised/arisiert›, but never that paintings had been taken away.»3

Through his alleged good faith and the decision of the Federal Court, Bührle assumed he had freed himself from any «historical burden»4. In the end, he returned the work to Rosenberg and legally bought it back from him. All’s well that ends well?

Emil Bührle himself thus ignored the fact that his collecting activities only really took off after the Nazi looting of Jewish property. And the Kunsthaus continues this tradition of repression to this day. But the fact is: the Bührle Collection only exists to this extent because of and as a direct consequence of the annihilation of Jewish people in Europe. Instead of a critical examination of the origins of the collection, the Kunsthaus conveys a narrative of injustice long-atoned for, the cumbersome burden cast off.

The past cannot simply be cast off but continues to have an effect on the present. The Swiss historian Erich Keller, for example, points this out in his book Das kontaminierte Museum:

«Such a collection is not buried somewhere, and no one knows where. On the contrary, it is in the limelight and is being used – like the Bührle Collection with its newly ascribed task of being a crowd puller at the Kunsthaus. Not despite but because of its complex history. It is by no means passive, not an object whose past has been conclusively examined and can thus be put to bed. Nor is it withdrawn from the forces of the market, art for art’s sake. On the contrary, it ‹shines›.»5

The city of Zurich praises the Bührle Collection as the «largest Impressionist collection in Europe»6 and rejoices in the financial and cultural «radiance» of the museum. However, it is misunderstood to what extent paintings like Edgar Degas’ Before the Start actually radiate: Expropriation, profit and genocide contaminate the collection and outshine any effort to conceal this.


1. Buomberger 1998, p. 41–42.
Surber 2021, n. p.
Schweizerisches Bundesgericht 1950, p. 8–9.

4. Keller 2021, p. 144. Erich Keller elaborates on the concept of historical burden as follows: «If we are talking about historically burdened art, we are talking about its contexts of appropriation, that is, about power asymmetries such as war, persecution, disenfranchisement, plundering, and expulsion.» (Keller 2021, p. 143–144)

5. Keller 2021, p. 148. With the metaphor of contamination, Erich Keller refers to the remarks of the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy (Savoy 2017, n. p.).
Surber 2021, n. p.


Emil Bührle Collection, Edgar Degas, Before the Start (accessed on May 6th 2023).

Buomberger 1998
Thomas Buomberger, Raubkunst – Kunstraub. Die Schweiz und der Handel mit gestohlenen Kulturgütern zur Zeit des Zweiten Weltkriegs, Zürich 1998.

Keller 2021
Erich Keller, Das kontaminierte Museum. Das Kunsthaus Zürich und die Sammlung Bührle, Zürich 2021.

Savoy 2017
Bénédicte Savoy, «Das Humboldt-Forum ist wie Tschernobyl», in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, July 20th 2017 (accessed on May 6th 2023).

Schweizerisches Bundesgericht 1950
Schweizerisches Bundesgericht, Raubgutsachen Bührle / Dr. Raeber / Fischer / Eidgenossenschaft. Verhandlung vom 18./19. Dezember 1950 im Obergerichtsgebäude Bern
(accessed on May 6th 2023).

Surber 2021
Kaspar Surber, «Den Bührles stets zu Diensten», in: WOZ – Die Wochenzeitung, September 23rd 2021 (accessed on May 6th 2023).