Concordia seeks return of Nazi loot

The Montreal Gazette 25 March 2006
Peggy Curran

A private museum in Munich, a German baroness's estate in Rhode Island, a casino in Taiwan. In the year since Concordia University raised the red flag on Nazi loot missing for 70 years, investigators say, they've zeroed in on the whereabouts of roughly 40 of the 400 paintings in the Max Stern collection.

Getting their hands on the plundered works will take considerably longer.

Clarence Epstein is spearheading the Max Stern Art Restitution Project on behalf of Concordia, McGill University and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the main beneficiaries of the Stern estate.

With works by Jan Brueghel, Annibale Carracci, Franz Winterhalter, Hieronymus Bosch and Max Liebermann, Epstein puts the value of missing trove at "tens and tens of millions of dollars."

A patient guy, Epstein is willing to give the people who currently possess the works the benefit of the doubt. For now.

But when people don't respond to what he calls reasonable requests and "moral obligations," Epstein is quite prepared to take legal action. He said proceedings will soon be launched to recoup one of the disputed paintings, an oil on canvas by Winterhalter.

The portrait of a woman with sleepy eyes surfaced last winter when the Baroness Von Morsey Pickard, an aging aristocrat looking to unload family treasures, tried to sell it through a Rhode Island auction house.

Estate agent Steven Fusco had lined up a California buyer willing to pay $150,000 when he had Concordia and Interpol breathing down his neck, telling him the Winterhalter was listed as stolen on the Art Loss Register.

Stern was already an influential art buyer and dealer in Dusseldorf when he fled Adolf Hitler's Germany in 1937.

Harassed by the Gestapo and ordered to liquidate his stock through a government-approved dealer, Stern consigned most his inventory and private collection to the Lempertz auction house in Cologne, storing the rest for shipment.

After the war, Stern recovered only a few dozen paintings from Germany and safekeeping in England. The bulk of his holdings, which ran the gamut from Old Masters to Impressionists and early 20th-century realism, had vanished - sold by Lempertz.

By poring through databases, art catalogues and auction lists, Epstein's team of art detectives, working with experts in London, New York and Europe, have tracked down 40 paintings that have been listed and sold by 15 auction houses over the last 20 years.

The Concordia detectives and New York's Holocaust Claims Processing Office plan to contact those auction houses - most of which are in Germany - seeking their help in locating the paintings.

"Many of these works have not strayed far from where they were when they vanished 70 years ago," Epstein said.

Paintings have been located in private and corporate collections in Cologne and Berlin. The Brueghel painting was found amongst the holdings of the Dutch National Collection.

People who have these paintings are honour-bound to come forward, Epstein said - especially when, like the woman in Rhode Island, they are trying sell something that doesn't really belong to them.

The Winterhalter painting was listed in a Lempertz catalogue in 1937. Records show the baroness's father bought it for $3,600. She and her lawyer are arguing he paid fair market value, there's no evidence Stern did not receive a share of the profits, and she inherited it. So there.
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