Stern estate wins court order in looted art case

The Canadian Jewish News 14 June 2007
Janice Arnold

MONTREAL - The estate of the late Montreal art dealer Max Stern has won a round in its legal case against an elderly Rhode Island woman in possession of a painting that the estate’s lawyers say Stern was forced to sell under duress from the Nazis 70 years ago.

In Providence, R.I., U.S. District Judge Mary Lisi granted a request earlier this month by the estate that ordered German-born Maria-Luise Bissonnette to stop moving the painting, the 19th-century Girl From the Sabiner Mountains by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

It came to light last September that Bissonnette had sent the artwork to Germany in April 2006, shortly before the Stern estate launched a suit in a Rhode Island federal court for the painting’s restitution.

The two sides negotiated for months to try to reach a settlement before the estate took the case to court.

Lisi also ordered Bissonnette to permit representatives of the estate to see the painting at its current location to determine its condition and to ensure that it is being stored properly. Bissonnette can only move the painting again with the court’s permission.

The two sides had tried unsuccessfully to work out a deal that would have allowed the estate to inspect the painting without seeking a court order. Bissonnette had originally agreed only to allow the estate representatives to view the painting at her German lawyers’ offices.

Stern, a Dusseldorf gallery owner, was ordered by the Gestapo to sell the Winterhalter, along with about 200 other artworks, at an auction conducted by Lempertz in Cologne in 1937. The estate claims he received only a small fraction of their value, which was largely taxed away.

He fled to England after this final liquidation of his inventory.

Stern, who owned the Dominion Gallery in Montreal for more than 40 years, died in 1987 and left his estate to Concordia and McGill universities and the Hebrew Univesity of Jerusalem, which have created a foundation in his name.

More than two years ago, Concordia launched a worldwide search, headed by Clarence Epstein, to find the confiscated Stern collection, which includes possibly another 200 works that the dealer was forced to sell after 1935.

The Stern estate’s legal team, headed by Washington, D.C.-based Thomas Kline, claim that the Winterhalter rightfully belongs to the estate, because it was effectively stolen under the Nazi government’s laws excluding Jews from trade in art.

The estate told the Rhode Island court that a German court recognized in 1964 that the Lempertz auction was coerced. Girl From the Sabiner Mountains is also listed as confiscated by the Art Loss Register in London.

Bissonnette, 83, who has lived in Providence for many years, says she inherited the work from her stepfather, physician Karl Wilharm. She says he paid for it and she has the receipt to prove it.

The estate’s own research found that Lempertz recorded that it sold the Winterhalter to Wilharm for the equivalent of $3,600, but Stern probably receive only two to five per cent of that, Epstein said.

The estate alleges that Wilharm was a “high-ranking member” of the storm troopers and a Nazi party member.

The painting’s whereabouts came to Epstein’s attention when it was put up for sale on the eBay website in January 2005 by a Rhode Island auction house, to which Bissonnette had consigned it.

Although she holds the hereditary title of baroness, the widowed Bissonnette said she tried to sell the painting to pay for cancer treatment.

The estate’s lawyers charge that she spirited the painting out of the United States to an unknown location in Germany to pre-empt litigation here. They surmise that she hoped to get a German court to act, and possibly receive a more sympathetic hearing.

The estates say there had been an understanding that the painting would be left at the Rhode Island auction house until the dispute was resolved.

Among the evidence filed in court was a postal receipt showing that Bissonnette put the painting’s value at $50 (US), which the estate’s lawyers say may have violated U.S. customs laws.

The Rhode Island auctioneer has said it was worth between $50,000 and $75,000 (US). Bissonnette had earlier said through her lawyer that she would only sell the painting to the Stern estate for $150,000.

Bissonnette told the Boston Globe that she didn’t know the painting’s value and underestimated it to discourage theft during shipment.

Montreal lawyer Robert Vineberg, executor of the estate, said the foundation had offered Bissonnette “a relatively small sum” as a goodwill gesture, considering her modest means and health, although legally, he maintains, she is owed nothing.

In the Globe interview published before the court upheld the estate’s request, Bissonnette insisted she and her parents had done nothing wrong.

She said her stepfather was a country doctor during World War II and did not support the Nazi regime. She said the Nazi police demanded use of a former bookbinding factory he owned outside Munich.

After the U.S. District Court decision, Bissonnette’s lawyer, John Weltman of Boston, reportedly withdrew from the case over differences with his client. He claimed he had never counselled her to send the painting to Germany and only knew about its movement after the fact.
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