Artwork lost to Nazis at center of legal battle

Boston Globe 10 September 2006
By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff

They were called ``Jew auctions": the forced sale of Jewish art collections at bargain prices, run by the Nazi Party for the benefit of the Third Reich.

Such was the fate of a 19th century oil painting bought by a Nazi storm trooper when Dusseldorf gallery owner Max Stern was ordered in 1935 to liquidate his inventory because he was a Jew.

Decades later, that painting -- ``Girl from the Sabine Mountains" -- made its way across the ocean to Rhode Island, where today it is at the center of an unusual federal lawsuit over its rightful ownership.

The case pits an ailing, elderly German baroness in Providence against a wealthy Canadian foundation created to benefit three universities in Canada and Israel. And it involves a Jewish lawyer in Boston who has helped Jewish families recover art lost during the Holocaust, but who now represents the baroness in a dispute over whether she possesses art stolen by her Nazi stepfather -- and whether she broke the law by taking the painting to Germany in search of an overseas court sympathetic to her position.

For Maria-Louise Bissonnette, 82, who inherited the piece from her late stepfather, Dr. Karl Wilharm, a high-ranking Nazi official, the issue is clear: She insists that she is the painting's legitimate owner, that Stern was fully paid for the artwork, and that if she must relinquish it to the Max Stern Foundation she should receive its estimated value of $150,000.

``There's no question it was a forced sale, and it has never been her intention to keep that work of art from the Max Stern estate," said Bissonnette's Boston lawyer, John Weltman, a Jewish art litigator whose lost-art cases up to now have been for Jewish families. ``She simply wants a court to determine to whom the work belongs, and if she has to return it the issue is how much she's entitled to be paid."

But lawyers and executors for Stern's Montreal estate maintain that Bissonnette has a moral and legal obligation to return the painting. Stern sold it under duress, they said, and ultimately received none of the sale's proceeds when he was forced out of Germany in 1937.

``Dr. Stern was deprived of that painting under circumstances of Nazi oppression of the worst kind," said Montreal attorney Robert Vineberg, an executor of Stern's estate. ``The estate's position is that this painting was wrongfully appropriated from Dr. Stern, and on that basis the estate is entitled to its return."

The controversy began in January 2005, when the Stern estate learned that the painting, by Franz X. Winterhalter, was on consignment at Estates Unlimited, a Cranston, R.I., auction house. The estate immediately contacted the Holocaust Claims Processing Office, a New York state agency that recovers lost or looted art. Agency officials then began negotiating with Bissonnette and Weltman, at one point offering $15,000 for the return of the artwork, which had been missing for nearly 70 years.

For more than a year, settlement negotiations dragged on unsuccessfully. They all but collapsed last April, when officials at the Holocaust Claims Processing Office were notified by Weltman's law firm, Lawson & Weitzen, that Bissonnette had taken the painting to Germany and asked a Cologne court to declare her its rightful owner.

That move spurred the agency to send a blistering letter to Weltman expressing ``immense disappointment, not to say shock," at the turn of events, which agency officials said broke an agreement that the painting would remain at the auction house until the dispute was resolved.

``Your client's actions . . . reflect bad faith and are unprecedented in our experience," Sherri North Cohen, a lawyer for the Holocaust Claims Processing Office, wrote in her April 25, 2006, letter. ``Perhaps your client, presumably in spite of your advice, did not understand the seriousness of her actions in moving the painting over state and international borders after receiving a factually supported Nazi-looted art restitution claim."

The Stern estate, also outraged, filed a lawsuit in US District Court in Rhode Island against Bissonnette and Estates Unlimited.

``In 20 years of doing this, I have never seen somebody with the nerve or chutzpah or audacity, after over a year of good-faith negotiations, to respond to the situation by taking the painting physically out of the country," said Willi Korte, a specialist in locating Nazi-looted art who is helping the estate recover Stern's more than 400 lost artworks.

``I was speechless, and at the same time kind of impressed, that this little old lady had the nerve to say, `To hell with all you guys, to hell with the state of New York, to hell with any legal arguments. I know what's right for myself so I'm going to take this thing to Germany where it came from.' "

Bissonnette did not return a call left with a concierge at her Providence home, and her Cranston, R.I., lawyer, Edward John Mulligan, refused to discuss her case.

But Weltman said in an interview he had not known Bissonnette planned to take the painting out of the country and was not aware of her plan until she had carried it out, although he believes there was no agreement preventing her from doing so. He described her as a woman of modest financial means, despite her regal title, who suffers from breast cancer and had intended to auction off the painting to help pay for her medications.

Stern, who fled Germany in 1937 after the forced sale of his gallery's inventory, became a prominent art collector and dealer in Montreal. When he died in 1987, he bequeathed his estate to a foundation that benefits Concordia and McGill universities in Montreal and Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.

Bissonnette's view, Weltman said, is that Stern was compensated twice for the painting: first when it was auctioned in the 1930s, and again in the 1960s when a German restitution court recognized that it had been forcibly sold and awarded Stern damages for his lost profit. As a result, Weltman said, Bissonnette believes that even if she is eventually ordered by a German judge to return the painting to the estate, she should be paid for it.

``What's upsetting to the Max Stern estate is that they feel they can get a better shake in this country," Weltman added, ``and Mrs. Bissonnette, using her own wits, decided they were probably right. So it came into her own head to take the painting to Germany," where it remains today.

Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor at DePaul University who specializes in cultural property issues, said legal precedent in the United States, Canada, and England dictates that if a painting is determined to have been stolen or illegally expropriated, its original owners may take it back without paying compensation. But Germany may take another view.

``People who've sued in the United States who are Nazis or connected to Nazis usually don't do very well," Gerstenblith said. ``However, it's possible that a German court would be more sympathetic and say there was no theft here in the first place or, if there was, you've already been compensated for it."

Steven M. Fusco, an art dealer at Estates Unlimited, did not return calls for comment. Nor did the auction house's Providence attorney, Kevin F. Bowen.

The estate's lawyers and executors said they remain ``bewildered" by Bissonnette's actions.

``Why would you even move the painting out of the country if you were trying to act in good faith to work out this situation?" asked Dr. Clarence Epstein, the estate's manager and director of special projects at Concordia University. ``This issue, for Mrs. Bissonnette, is clearly a financial exercise. But for us this is more than financial. It's a moral issue for which the estate will put all its resources behind fighting."
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