‘Historic’ court decision returns art looted by Nazis

1945 9 December 2008
CREDIT: John Kenney/Montreal Gazette
By Teresa Smith

Two paintings that once belonged to Montreal art dealer Max Stern that were looted by the Nazis during the Second World War will be returned to his estate Wednesday in Berlin, Germany.

Last year, a U.S. court ruled that an elderly German baroness, Maria-Louise Bissonnette, must surrender the painting, Girl From the Sabine Mountains, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, estimated to be worth as much as $200,000. The decision was the first in U.S. legal history dealing with the forced sale of Jewish-owned art in Nazi Germany. The judge equated the forced sale in 1937 to theft.

Clarence Epstein, the director of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project - which has spent the last seven years tracking down works from Stern's former collection - says the judgment is groundbreaking for all claimants of looted art.

"This means that every painting that was part of that forced sale . . . is equivalent to the Winterhalter," he said. "If that painting was deemed to be a looted work, then so are the other 227 paintings sold during that auction."

A second Stern painting, by a Dutch old master that ended up in the collection of former German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, has also been recovered. It will be unveiled at the same news conference in Berlin on Wednesday.

According to Epstein, the Restitution Project knows the whereabouts of only five to 10 per cent of Stern's paintings. "We believe that a good number of these works are circulating in German-speaking countries."

Most, according to Epstein, are part of private collections, so they are difficult to locate.

Willi Konte, a Washington-based expert in recovering stolen works from that era, calls the U.S. Appeal Court decision to equate the forced sale with theft "truly historic."

"The great majority of Jewish artists and dealers lost their art not through straight confiscation, but because they were forced to sell it," Konte said. He added that they were generally sold considerably below fair market value.

Konte hopes the decision will have an impact on future returns to the Stern heirs. "We will be able to start discussions with people (who currently have Stern's other works) by saying that, based on the U.S. law, they are in possession of a stolen work of art."

According to Anna Rubin, director of the New York State Banking Department's Holocaust Claims Processing Office, over 600,000 works of art, rare books, pieces of furniture, sculptures and jewelry were looted during the Nazi regime.

Stern died in 1987 as one of Canada's most successful art dealers. He had no direct family heirs, so he bequeathed his estate to Montreal's Concordia and McGill universities, as well as Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

After being forced by the Nazis to sell most of the works in his collection, Stern went first to London and then came to Canada. He settled in Montreal in 1940 and began rebuilding his reputation as an art dealer. According to Stern's biography, Montreal at that time was largely known for more conservative commercial galleries specializing mainly in picturesque landscapes, but Stern was more well known for exhibiting emerging artists and portraiture.

Wile files from Montreal Gazette
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