Canada’s ambassador to Germany and the mayor of Dusseldorf are meeting at the Dusseldorf City Museum on Monday to mark the return to the estate of German-Canadian art dealer Max Stern of a 19th-century painting the dealer was forced to sell by the Nazis in 1937.
Ambassador Marie Gervais-Vidricaire and Mayor Dirk Elbers are among the dignitaries scheduled to participate in the historic restitution ceremony for a rare self-portrait by Wilhelm von Schadow, one of the earliest members of the famous Nazarene movement of German Romantic painters and, from 1826 to 1859, the director of the Dusseldorf Academy of the Arts. Founded in 1762, the academy’s alumni have included such notables as Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Alfred Bocklin, Paul Klee and Anselm Kiefer.
The ceremony marks only the second instance that a work of Nazi-looted art from the Stern estate has been returned by a German institution. The first, in March last year, saw the estate, after four years of research and negotiation, recover from the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart a 15th-century Renaissance painting, Virgin and Child, previously attributed to the Belgian artist known as the Master of Flémalle. Owner of an eponymous gallery in Dusseldorf founded by his father in 1913, Stern, a Jew, fled Nazi Germany in December, 1937, after being forced to sell hundreds of works from the gallery for far less than market value. (He settled in Montreal in the early 1940s, becoming owner-president of the renowned Dominion Gallery, dying at 83 in 1987.)
The Schadow self-portrait, an oil 59 by 43 centimetres, was one of those works, sold Nov. 13, 1937, to an unidentified buyer by the Cologne-based auction house Lempertz. Coincidentally, it was Lempertz 35 years later, on Nov. 15, 1972, that orchestrated the sale of the painting into the Dusseldorf City Museum’s collection – a sale for which Lempertz did not include the Stern provenance in its 1972 catalogue copy. Clarence Epstein, since 2002 the head of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project at Montreal’s Concordia University, recently called this “a recurring and troubling motif, in that very often the same auction houses around [in the 1933-1945 Nazi era] are recycling looted paintings today.” Indeed, it’s been estimated that more than 100 Stern works remain in German private collections and public institutions.
Germany, of course, has been at the forefront of the art-restitution issue since last November when news broke that Cornelius Gurlitt, son of a German art dealer with close ties to the Nazis, had more than 1,300 art works, including pieces by Matisse, Picasso and Renoir, secretly stashed in his Munich apartment. (Another 60 works were found in February in a house Gurlitt owns in Austria.) Many of these pieces are believed to have been surrendered under duress to Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand, after the Nazis passed laws forbidding Jews to buy and sell art.
While Germany signed the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art that call for “a just and fair solution” to issues of ownership, the country has no law preventing an individual or institution from owning looted art, no restitution statutes for Nazi-confiscated art and a 30-year statute of limitation on the recovery of stolen property. As a result, individuals and estates with claims on Holocaust-era art within its borders have had to rely on a combination of moral suasion, assiduous historical research and diplomacy to make their case.
In the case of the Stern Schadow, the Stern restitution project knew that the painting existed but not where. That mystery was solved only in 2012 when a Stern researcher came across a reproduction of the self-portrait in a catalogue for a 1976 exhibition titled The Hudson and the Rhine, at the Kunsthaus Dusseldorf. It turns out that Dusseldorf in the mid-19th century was home to a significant colony of talented U.S. artists, many of whom saw resemblances between the topography of New York’s Hudson River Valley and that of the Rhine River in Germany. One of the most notable Dusseldorf Americans was Emanuel Leutze who completed his most famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, in the German city in 1850. Schadow’s self-portrait was included in the catalogue because, as head of the Dusseldorf academy during the colony’s heyday, he was a major figure in the city’s cultural life and therefore well-known to the American expatriates.
With that discovery, “that’s when we reached out to Dusseldorf,” Epstein said. “Negotiations proceeded as many of our negotiations proceed: It was a matter of informing them and educating them as well, since it was not something that they had been doing very often in terms of receiving these kinds of claims.” Discussions “took some time,” he said, but by late 2013 Dusseldorf city council agreed ownership of the Schadow should be restored to the Stern estate.
The Schadow is the 12th work to be successfully reclaimed by the Stern estate. It will stay at the city museum for an unspecified time as a loan. Meanwhile, Dusseldorf’s civic government is announcing Monday that it’s partnering with the city museum, Concordia University and other organizations on a multiyear initiative “to build scholarship and public awareness around the issue of restitution.” This will entail programs, activities, exchanges, symposiums and exhibitions, including, in 2018, one at the city museum devoted largely to the history of Galerie Stern.