Poppy Field Near Vétheuil

Painted around 1879 by Claude Monet. Sold by Hans Erich Emden on the run in 1941.

Claude Monet’s Poppy Field Near Vétheuil is admired today for its technique; the painted sections of cloudy sky, the spotted of flowers in the field. But behind the idyllic landscape lies the story of flight and dispossession.

The painting belonged to the German-Jewish merchant Max Emden, who had settled in Ticino on the Brissago Islands. After 1933 he applied for Swiss citizenship, which was granted to him shortly afterwards. This happened thanks to the support of the local authorities, who could expect substantial tax revenues from the wealthy merchant in the course of his naturalisation.

When Max Emden was dying in 1940, his son Hans Erich visited him, but he was forced to leave Switzerland again. Unlike his father, he was denied Swiss citizenship. In the same year, the Nazi regime revoked his German citizenship – as a descendant of German Jews – which left him wealthy but persecuted and stateless. With a purchased Haitian passport, Hans Erich Emden made his way via Portugal to South America, where he would remain for the rest of his life.1

While the remaining family assets were confiscated by the National Socialists in Germany, Hans Erich Emden had to manage his Swiss assets from the other side of the world and sell them off successively as time passed. A prime example is the sale of the Brissago Islands, the price of which the local authorities pushed down from 1.2 million to 600 000 Swiss francs.

Due to the forced sales of Jewish collectors, the art market had already become oversaturated and unfavourable for sales years before the war began. Hans Erich Emden was nevertheless forced to sell those parts of the collection that remained after the «Arisierungen». In the early 1940s, Emil Bührle was offered the Poppy Field for sale – and he grabbed it. The audio guide in the Kunsthaus mentions the controversy surrounding this work, but then concludes that it was a «regular purchase in difficult times»2.

How does the Kunsthaus come to this conclusion? According to the audio guide, a list of assets shows that Hans Erich Emden was never under financial pressure. Some 80 years after the war, the Kunsthaus digs up information about the assets of a person on the run and concludes: Hans Erich Emden was so wealthy that it was justifiable to enrich oneself off his flight.

The story of the Emden family speaks volumes not least of the opportunism of the Swiss authorities and their migration policy. In the case of Max Emden, concerns about «foreign infiltration» were easily placated by financial interests.3 His father’s tax money was gladly accepted, but the Swiss authorities did not feel obliged to protect his son Hans Erich from the persecution of the Nazi regime.


1. Brömmling 2021, p. 139–148.
Emil Bührle Collection.
Strasser 2022.


Emil Bührle Collection, Claude Monet, Poppy Field Near Vétheuil (accessed on May 4th 2023).

Brömmling 2021
Ulrich Brömmling, Max Emden. Hamburger Kaufmann, Kaufhauserfinder, Ästhet und Mäzen, Göttingen 2021.

Emil Bührle Collection
Emil Bührle Collection, Audioguide Nr. 263 (accessed on May 4th 2023).

Strasser 2022
Matthias Strasser, «Max Emden und die Brissago-Inseln», in: Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen, May 21st 2022 (accessed on May 4th 2023).