Providence couple embroiled in search for Nazi art

Providence Journal 5 November 2009
By Katie Mulvaney

In this family photo, Maria-Luise Bissonnette’s parents, Dr. Karl Wilharm and his wife, Lilli, stand near the painting in question — in the corner.

The Providence Journal / Glenn Osmundson

PROVIDENCE As Maria-Luise and Conrad Bissonnette shared their weekly lunch in Woonsocket last week, a half-dozen federal agents searched their ninth-floor apartment overlooking the State House.

The agents from the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement’s arts and antiquities unit scoured boxes of paperwork, opened safes and rifled through photographs after the manager at the Avalon at Center Place let them into the couple’s apartment on Oct. 27.

The reason for the search remained unclear to the Bissonnettes when they returned home around 3:30 p.m. The agents gave no explanation, Maria-Luise said, but left her a phone number to call at the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York. The search warrant did not detail what they were looking for, but said they had seized miscellaneous unidentified documents, photos and three passports when they left an hour later.

The Bissonnettes said they enlisted the building manager to inquire on their behalf after the agents did not return their calls. In response, ICE faxed the couple a document supporting the warrant that specified that agents were looking for items, including artwork, related to the sale or transfer of art illegally imported to the United States. They were also in search of evidence that showed the sale or transfer of goods that were taken by forced sale by Maria-Luise’s stepfather.

U.S. Magistrate Lincoln D. Almond signed the warrant giving the agents the go-ahead; the affidavit supporting it is under seal in U.S. District Court. ICE will not comment about ongoing investigations, according to Lou Martinez, agency spokesman, but part of ICE’s mission is to investigate the loss or looting of cultural-heritage properties and return them to them to their country of origin.

THE BISSONNETTES are trying to determine what the agents took, and they grumble about torn boxes, photos strewn on chairs and closets left in disarray. Maria-Luise points to empty spots and missing pages from a photo album dating to the 1930s. They are unsure what’s next.

“Honestly, I didn’t do anything. I’m trying to get my rights,” says Maria-Luise, 85, a baroness with coifed red hair and a regal bearing. “I love America. Something like that, I don’t understand.”

It is not the Bissonnettes’ first brush with the American legal system. A federal appeals court panel ruled a year ago that a painting owned by Maria-Luise that had long hung on her wall had, in effect, been stolen from a Jewish gallery owner during the Holocaust. The court upheld an earlier ruling that collector Max Stern was robbed of the artwork when the Nazis forced him to sell it at auction for vastly less than its value.

The decision was the first in the United States in which a forced sale was found to be the equivalent of theft. Some projected it would clear the way for Stern’s estate to pursue hundreds of other works.

That case has roots going back to 1934, when Stern inherited an art gallery in Dusseldorf, Germany, from his father, court records show. At the time, the Nazis were enacting strict laws that prohibited Jews from owning businesses. And, in 1935, the regime’s Reich Chamber for the Visual Arts ordered Stern to sell his collection.

Two years later, after Stern’s appeals failed, the Lempertz auction house in Cologne, Germany, sold his works at below market value. The German government froze his assets, so he never received money from the sale.

Stern moved to Canada, where he became a preeminent art collector and dealer. For decades, he hunted for his artworks, even initiating legal proceedings in Germany. Upon his death, in 1987, his estate launched its own recovery effort.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s painting, “Girl from the Sabine Mountains,” surfaced in January 2005, when Bissonnette tried to sell it through the Cranston auction house Estates Unlimited. She needed the money, she said, to help pay for bills related to her breast-cancer treatment.

Maria-Luise’s stepfather, Karl Wilharm, a physician and high-ranking member of the Nazi party, purchased the painting by the 19th-century painter and lithographer in the forced auction, according to the Stern estate.

AMERICAN occupation forces arrested Wilharm after the war, and he was held for about 15 months for his previous Nazi affiliations and activities, the estate said. Among the accusations against Wilharm is that storm troopers rounded up Jews and opponents of the Nazi regime and took them to an unused factory owned by Wilharm. There, they were beaten, in some cases, to death, with Wilharm’s “knowledge, encouragement and consent,” the estate said.

The Stern estate made a claim for restitution with the Holocaust Claims Processing Office, a branch of the State of New York’s banking department, when Bissonnette moved to sell the work, which she inherited in 1991. The office sent a letter in February 2005 seeking return of the painting. Bissonnette refused, spurring a year of fruitless negotiations over the painting, valued at $67,000 to $93,000.

Bissonnette shipped the painting to Germany and sued the Stern estate in the German courts in a bid to establish ownership. That suit has not been settled, but the painting was returned to the estate and is now on loan to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

The Stern estate subsequently filed its suit in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island. Thomas R. Kline, a lawyer for the estate, said the German courts would be obligated to respect the 1st Circuit decision.

BISSONNETTE continues to hold out hope that the painting will be declared rightly hers.

“I’m still the owner,” says Bissonnette. “Now, they say they were all confiscated. They were not confiscated … They really told them a good story.” Stern, she said, could have opted not to sell the paintings.

“According to German law, it was not a forced sale,” she said at the dining room table in an apartment full of antique furniture. “It was not sold under duress.”

She disputes characterizations that her father was a high-ranking Nazi, explaining that at that time, everyone belonged to the party to ensure food and jobs. “He was not a Nazi,” she said. “He was just a doctor. That was all.”

She has the support of her second husband, Conrad Bissonnette, a Woonsocket native and former CIA employee she met at an Arthur Murray dance school in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s. She had come to America following World War II with her first husband, whom she later divorced.

“The stuff I have in my room is junk, but it’s my junk,” Conrad, 84, said, gesturing toward a room lined with book cases and boxes. “They’ve messed it all up.” He is outraged that his passport has been taken and repeats his wife’s contention that Stern willingly sold his work. “It was his choice to sell.”

Representatives from the Max Stern Restitution Project, an effort to recover the late collector’s work, did not return a phone call or e-mails seeking comment this week.
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