First of Stern's Nazi-looted art recovered

The Canadian Jewish News 26 October 2006
Janice Arnold

MONTREAL - Almost 70 years after a German Jewish art dealer was forced by the Nazis to sell it off at a bargain-basement price, a painting of an exotic young woman has been restored to its rightful owner, the estate of the late Max Stern.

Stern, who died in 1987, owned the Dominion Gallery in Montreal for four decades and became one of Canada’s leading art promoters.

Aimee, a Young Egyptian by 19th-century Frenchman Emile C.H. Vernet-Lecomte is the first artwork that has been recovered among the more than 400 pieces Stern is believed to have had to liquidate from his Dusseldorf art gallery between 1935 and 1937.

The portrait of a spangled raven-haired beauty in billowing costume, which sold at auction in New York five years ago for close to $100,000 (US), was returned by Sotheby’s, after the London-based auction house discovered through its own research the painting’s tainted provenance.

The identity of the consigner and the party that bought the painting, or the nature of the settlement were not revealed, although lawyer Robert Vineberg, an executor of the Stern estate, said there was no financial compensation.

Sotheby’s Lucian Simmons said it is obliged to keep confidential everything about the negotiations and would not even say if the purchaser was American or, in fact, an individual. He did say that the party was “very emotional” about the matter.

The painting was unveiled with great flourish at a press conference last Thursday at Concordia University’s Faculty of Fine Arts Gallery. Concordia launched an international effort in March 2005, headed by cultural-property specialist Clarence Epstein, to track down and recover all of the artworks Stern was forced to sell.

Max and Iris Stern, who had no children, left the bulk of their assets, including a 5,000-piece art collection, to Concordia, McGill University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

This painting, however, was not among the 10 to 15 located so far in Europe, the United States and Taiwan, mostly at auction houses, galleries and recently in museums.

Willi Korte, the German-American lawyer overseeing the investigation for the Stern estate, said Aimee was retrieved without any of the wrangling, often in the courts, that accompanies looted-art claims.

“Sotheby’s on its own took all the necessary steps. There was not a great deal of bargaining, discussing or settling. It went very smoothly and very quickly. I hope this will be an example to other claims,” he said.
In 2002, Sotheby’s, acting on information it received, began to look into the painting’s history, long before the Stern restoration project began or Sotheby’s had even heard of Stern, said Simmons, senior vice-president of its restitution department in New York.

It found Aimee was among the final approximately 250 paintings from the Stern gallery auctioned off in 1937 by the Lempertz house in Cologne. How it ended up in the United States was also not made known.

Confirming that this was in fact the same painting was not easy, Korte added, because it was listed under a different title and was not illustrated in the Lempertz catalogue. Investigators positively identified it by the measurements. They then called Epstein.

Stern probably received only “a few cents on the dollar” of the discount prices the lot went for, Epstein said. Soon after, Stern fled to Britain, from which he was deported as an enemy alien in 1941 to an internment camp in Quebec. After the war, Stern tried to recover the art, but only managed to get back a few works, Epstein said.

Aimee arrived at Concordia coincidentally with the opening of a text and photo exhibition the art faculty and students have created, titled “Auktion 392: Reclaiming the Galerie Stern, Dusseldorf,” which traces the history of the gallery, opened in 1913 by Max’s father Julius, and its destruction under Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbel’s plan to eliminate Jews from the art trade.

That is the number assigned by Lempertz to the lot auctioned off in 1937, and the exhibit, which continues until Nov. 13, includes reproductions from the lavishly illustrated catalogue and other historical documents.

Aimee will be on display for a few weeks at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts by the end of this month, said chief curator Nathalie Bondil. Stern was a benefactor of the museum, she noted, and the museum is committed to the search for ill-gotten artwork. The painting will then tour with “Auktion 392” to elsewhere in North America, Europe and Israel for the next two years.

Epstein noted that Stern’s losses represent just a fraction of the 140,000 artworks believed to have been confiscated, sold under duress or gone missing during the Nazi era, and the great majority have never been recovered.

The Stern estate is working closely with the Holocaust claims processing office of the New York State Banking Department. Sherri North Cohen, a lawyer with the office, said the Nazis violated international law by forcing Jews to sell their art. Korte, however, added that there are no simple legal remedies to restore looted art, and outside of North America and the “Anglo-Saxon” world, there is less sympathy for claims.

He tries to use a combination of moral, political and finally legal arguments in each case, and it can take years.

The Stern estate is currently in a legal battle in a Rhode Island court for a 19th-century painting by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, owned by an elderly German baroness, Maria-Louise Bissonnette. Her stepfather bought it at the 1937 Lempertz auction. In September, it came to light that she had spirited the painting out of the country to Germany where she wants a court there to decide what should be done.
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