In a new city-sponsored initiative, museums in Basel, Switzerland are investigating their collections for items that may have been obtained unethically. Some of these items have already been tagged for disposal.

The project was announced last week by the cantonal government of Basel-Stadt, which set aside 250,000 CHF ($250,000) from next year’s budget for the effort. The goal, said cantonal president Beat Jans“is to clarify step by step the origin of our collections and to communicate the results of research in a transparent way.

The move comes as museums across Europe and the United States have begun to respond to calls for increased transparency around acquisitions. A law passed in New York last month, for example, requires state museums to disclose whether artworks on display passed into Nazi hands.

Provenance research is already underway in some of the five Basel museums under cantonal supervision.

Experts at the Kunstmuseum Basel have learned that a late medieval apocalyptic print from its collection was “forcibly removed” from the Josefine and Eduard von Portheim Foundation in Heidelberg during World War II, according to the announcement.

The museum has since agreed what it calls a ‘fair and equitable solution’ with the nonprofit: title to the work will pass to the von Portheim Foundation while the work itself will remain on view to the institution via a permanent loan.

Late medieval print from the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel which will be returned to the Josefine and Eduard von Portheim Foundation.

The Nazi shadow also hovers over a collection of furniture, ceramics, paintings and carpets recently donated to the Basel Historical Museum by the Emile Dreyfus Foundation. Basel City Council approved the giftbut only on the condition that the museum investigate 35 objects that Dreyfus – who made purchases from a Basel gallerist loosely linked to Nazi-looted art dealers – acquired after 1933.

So far, none of the objects examined have aroused suspicion.

In the meantime, the Basel Natural History Museum plans to return 12 skulls and a hair sample aborigines to Australia, following a repatriation request from the country’s government, and the Museum of Antiquities in Basel has reformulated its own provenance research strategy for the sake of greater transparency.

The long-term vision of the latter institution was echoed by the Board of Governors of Basel Stadt, which noted in its announcement that the new provenance initiative was not intended as a one-time event. “Provenance research should be promoted even more actively and systematically in Basel museums in the future,” the document explains.

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