Adenauer painting returned to Stern estate

Canadian Jewish News 17 December 2008
By Janice Arnold

The recovery of a Nazi-looted painting once in the possession of former German chancellor Konrad Adenauer was announced by the estate of the late German-born Montreal art dealer Max Stern at a press conference last week in Berlin.

Flight Into Egypt by the circle of  Flemish Old Master Jan Wellens de Cock (1480-1527) was among the approximately 400 works that Stern, then a gallery owner in Düsseldorf, was forced to sell by the Nazis between 1935 and 1937.

The heirs of the Stern estate are three universities, McGill and Concordia in Montreal, and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The painting’s unveiling in Berlin was the first time it has been publicly presented in almost 40 years. It was not disclosed where the painting had been since Adenauer, who died in 1967, held it.

Flight Into Egypt is the fifth work recovered since the Concordia-administered Max Stern Art Restitution Project, which is working with the estate, was launched in 2002.

What happened to the painting after it left Stern’s hands in the 1930s is not known, except that it eventually became part of the collection of Adenauer, who was the first chancellor of West Germany from 1949 to 1963. A native of Cologne and its one-time mayor, Adenauer was opposed to the Nazi regime.

The estate was able to determine the provenance of the de Cock through recent research by the Netherlands Institute for Art History at the Hague. Its return was facilitated by Christie’s auction house and the New York State Banking Department’s Holocaust Claims Processing Office.

“We are delighted to have helped resolve this matter,” said Monica Dugot, Christie’s senior vice-president and international director of restitution. “This is a good example of how co-operation amongst all parties can lead to fair and just solutions to Nazi-looted art cases.”

The Berlin event, held at the offices of the University of Toronto, also saw the unveiling of another painting that a U.S. appeals court ruled in November belongs to the Stern estate.

The 19th-century Girl from the Sabine Mountains by Franz Xaver Winterhalter had been the subject of lengthy negotiations and later a legal battle between the estate’s executors, headed by Montreal lawyer Robert Vineberg, and the 84-year-old German baroness Maria-Louise Bissonnette of Providence, R.I.

Her stepfather bought the painting in 1937 for a price well below fair-market value at Cologne’s Lempertz auction house, where Stern had to liquidate the remaining 225 works in his inventory before fleeing Germany.

When talks with the estate broke down in 2006, Bissonnette surreptitiously shipped the Winterhalter, which had been in her possession for almost 50 years, to Germany and asked a German court to determine its ownership. It had remained in storage there since.

The Netherlands Institute for Art History has also confirmed that more than 40 additional paintings by other Old Masters such as Brueghel, Van Dyck, Ruisdael and Teniers were among the works Stern sold under duress when the Nazis banned Jews from the art trade.

“These discoveries are extremely important,” said Clarence Epstein, head of the Stern Art Restitution Project.

Epstein said the ruling by the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston last month was the first in U.S. legal history dealing with the forced sale of Jewish-owned art in Nazi Germany. The judge decided that the circumstances of the sales amounted to “de facto confiscation” by the Third Reich.

The judgment will have an impact on other restitution claims, he said, because it establishes that the Stern art was, in fact, stolen and that those in possession of it today are not the rightful owners.

The estate is also working closely with the Art Loss Register in London and the German government’s Co-ordination Office for the Return of Cultural Property, established in 1994 to handle claims of confiscation by the Nazis or other losses during World War II.
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