Recovery discovery

Concordia Journal 15 January 2009
By Karen Herland

A further 45 important Old Master artworks have been confirmed as among the missing canvases belonging to the Max Stern Estate. As one of three institutional beneficiaries of the estate, Concordia has been actively involved in the Stern Art Restitution Project since its inception in 2002. 

The project team has worked tirelessly to identify, catalogue, locate and recover works that had been in Stern's possession from the time the Gestapo ordered him in 1935 to cease practicing his profession until 1937 when he had to liquidate the last of his holdings.

The Gestapo’s first letter was sent almost at the exact moment that the Nuremberg laws came into effect.

Recent research at the Netherlands Institute of Art (RKD) has uncovered correspondence confirming Stern's ownership of numerous canvases during that period (three of which are illustrated at left). The Galerie Stern in Düsseldorf handled Dutch and Flemish works and Stern frequently called on the RKD experts to confirm their authenticity.

Clarence Epstein, responsible for special projects and cultural affairs in the President's office, says the correspondence reveals that Stern tried to first sell off the more valuable works from the gallery. Many of those paintings are the subject of the correspondence at the RKD, underscoring the importance of the identification of these works.

"This research has uncovered a wealth of leads that will help us advance claims on dozens of paintings," explains Epstein.

The newly-identified works have all been added to the Art Loss Register, the world's largest private database of stolen, looted and missing works of art, including those sold in forced sales during the Nazi era.

As the number of identified works grows, Assistant to the Director Sandra Margolian has been working closely with the Holocaust Claims Processing Office in New York and Concordia’s IITS to develop a database to track the works and information about them and their potential whereabouts. The database, which Margolian says will keep track of over a thousand works that went through the Galerie Stern when it is finished later this year, is unique.

Among those recently described in Stern's letters and added to the databases is the Jan Wellens de Cock painting which representatives of the Christie's auction house returned to the Estate at a press conference in Berlin last month. While in Berlin, Epstein also attended an international symposium on art restitution. The two-day event was organized by the German ministry of culture with the participation of delegates from across Europe and America.

The symposium also spotlighted the exhibition on looted art at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The Stern case was selected as one of 15 stories to be featured in the exhibition, of some 300 possible family histories. The museum's decision to include Stern's story was partly based on the excellent research done by Art History Professor Catherine MacKenzie for the show she premiered at Concordia in October 2006.

Auktion 392: Reclaiming the Galerie Stern, Düsseldorf illustrates the final transaction pursuant to the Gestapo's order to shut down the gallery, and forcing the liquidation of the remaining 228 canvases, in late 1937.  

The Stern Art Restitution Project has been instrumental in convincing international courts to recognize the illegality of such forced sales. One of the project's lawyers in Washington, Thomas Kline, explained at the Berlin press conference that the recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals to uphold a lower court's decision on the Estate’s ownership of the Winterhalter painting (see Journal, Jan. 17, 2008) clearly affirms, "requiring Dr. Stern to sell the painting was the same as confiscating it, or stealing it from him."

Auktion 392 has toured in North America and Europe and is currently on exhibition in Hereford, England. There are plans to bring that exhibition to Germany as well.
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