Montreal foundation trying to get back art work looted by Nazis

1945 13 September 2006
Dene Moore

MONTREAL (CP) - A Canadian foundation dedicated to tracking down Nazi-looted art has located one of the hundreds of paintings it is seeking and hopes to have its first major victory in the coming weeks.

The Max Stern Art Restitution Project is looking for hundreds of paintings seized by the Nazis during the Second World War. Although about 40 works of art have been located, the process of recovering them has been slow and sometimes frustrating.

The foundation is suing a German baroness after one of the paintings it wants was spirited out of the United States and back to Germany.

"Good news only comes when a settlement is finalized," Clarence Epstein, head of the foundation, said Tuesday. "We haven't finalized any settlements but we're hoping to very soon.

"Another work was just identified this month as being in the collection of a Spanish foundation."
He did not name the foundation or the artwork involved.

Max Stern operated an art gallery in Dusseldorf from 1913 to 1934. Then, like many others, he was forced to sell his holdings to benefit the Third Reich.

Stern fled Germany in 1937 and eventually moved to Montreal, where he and his wife owned the Dominion Gallery.

When he died in 1987, Stern named Concordia, McGill University and Hebrew University of Jerusalem the beneficiaries of his estate.

Since then, executors have taken on the challenge of tracking down what they believe are tens of millions of dollars worth of looted works of art from such masters as Jan Brueghel, Lodovico Carracci and Franz Xavier Winterhalter.

Negotiations are ongoing with private collectors, galleries and government institutions around the world to recover these works.

"We're finding them slowly but we're finding them," said Robert Vineberg, lawyer for the Stern project.

But this year the project became embroiled in a legal dispute with Baroness Maria-Louise Bissonnette, 82, who has taken Winterhalter's "Girl from the Sabine Mountains" back to Germany, in search of a more sympathetic jurisdictions, according to the project.

"It's the first time we've seen this kind of audacity," Epstein said.

Bissonnette's lawyer, John Weltman, said his client does not dispute that the work was looted by the Nazis or that it should be returned.

But Weltman said it is a one-of-a-kind case because Stern was paid for the painting - a work he had on consignment in his gallery and never paid the artist for - first during the war and again in 1964 by a German repatriation court.

"She's an elderly woman with very little assets and this is one of the few assets that she had," Weltman said Tuesday, adding that she suffers from cancer and requires expensive medications.

"She's not saying she won't return it."

The woman is seeking the estimated value of $150,000.

Vineberg said Stern was forced to put his art up for sale at auction.

"In our view, the art was stolen."

The case, launched by Bissonnette in April in Germany to have her declared the artwork's sole owner and earlier by the Stern project in the U.S., could take years to make its way through the two courts.

An official from the Holocaust Claims Processing Office, in New York, wouldn't comment on the case.

"It's in litigation," said Liz Billet. "We're not really involved anymore."

The office has a total of 230 claims by Canadians, seven of them for art looted by the Third Reich.
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