U.S. judge rules Nazi-looted painting belongs to Max Stern estate

CBC News 28 December 2007

A U.S. federal judge has ruled against a German baroness who spirited a painting out of the U.S. to prevent it from being claimed by the estate of Montreal art dealer Max Stern.  

On Thursday, Maria-Luise Bissonnette was ordered by a Rhode Island court to return Girl from the Sabiner Mountains, a painting believed to be a work by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, to the Max Stern Art Restitution Project.

Girl from the Sabiner Mountains is believed to be by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, a 19th century portrait painter.

 Girl from the Sabiner Mountains is believed to be by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, a 19th century portrait painter.
(Concordia University/Canadian Press)

The foundation was founded in Montreal to recover Nazi-looted paintings once owned by Stern, a German Jew who was forced to sell or relinquish 250 European masterpieces before he left Germany.

"It is clear that Dr. Stern's relinquishment of his property was anything but voluntary," U.S. District Judge Mary Lisi wrote in her decision Thursday.

Stern inherited his family's Dusseldorf art gallery in 1934, but was forced to auction off the contents three years later because he was a Jew.

Stern, who died in 1987, was forced to use proceeds from the auction to secure exit papers for his mother, who was still in Germany, lawyers said in their application to the court.

"I was blackmailed," Stern wrote in an affidavit. The taxes "were totally unjustified and came out of thin air."

Stern left his estate to Concordia and McGill universities in Montreal and Hebrew University in Jerusalem and they have jointly formed the Max Art Restitution Project in an attempt to recover the Nazi-looted art.

Bissonnette, 83, said her stepfather, Karl Wilharm, a Nazi party member, purchased the painting at auction and said she and her family did nothing wrong.

"I have the receipt. My father paid for it," she had said before the case was heard. "I would like to hope that my parents' names would be cleared."

Winterhalter was a 19th-century artist famous for his portraits of European nobility and the painting has been valued at up to $94,000 US.

Bissonnette tried to sell the painting in 2005, but was blocked by the claim from Stern's estate. The Stern estate held talks with the elderly baroness to arrange compensation, but they were unable to reach an agreement.

She then took the painting to Germany, where it is now sitting in a warehouse.

Marta Garrett, a lawyer for Bissonnette, would not comment on the ruling or say whether Bissonnette plans an appeal.
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