Court Ruling May Ease Restitution of 20 Nazi-Stolen Artworks

Bloomberg 14 January 2008
By Linda Sandler and Catherine Hickley

The latest twist in the tortuous story of restitution for Nazi-era stolen art began in Dusseldorf, Germany, wound through a court in Providence, Rhode Island, and now is giving hope to university officials in Montreal.

Last month a U.S. court ruled that the Nazis forced German dealer Max Stern to sell his inventory of art. Officials at Concordia University in Montreal, one of the beneficiaries of Stern's will, believe the ruling will help them recover artworks owned by more than 20 museums or individuals.

``We're hopeful that this judgment will give us greater leverage in our argument now that we have a U.S. court ruling,'' said Clarence Epstein, Concordia's director of special projects, who runs the Stern estate's restitution effort. ``I wouldn't be surprised to see these cases multiply.''

U.S. District Court Judge Mary Lisi in Providence accepted the estate's argument that a forced sale of art was akin to looting or theft. On Dec. 27, the judge ordered Maria-Louise Bissonnette, a Providence resident, to hand over to the Stern estate a Franz Xaver Winterhalter painting valued at about $94,000.

The courts have rarely ruled that a sale under duress is a theft, restitution specialists said. In October, actress Elizabeth Taylor kept a Vincent van Gogh painting after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal by three people who said their great-grandmother was forced to sell the work before fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939.

Artworks the Stern estate now is trying to recover include: an allegorical painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder belonging to the Dutch government; Jean-Baptiste van Loo's ``Moses and the Burning Bush,'' held by a Taiwan art foundation; and two Max Liebermann works, ``The Potato Picker'' and a painting of the artist and his family, both in German hands.

400 Works Found

The Dutch government's restitution committee has told Epstein that the Brueghel is on a list of works being reviewed for possible return, Epstein said. The estate has located about 400 of Stern's works, all forcibly sold, that may be valued at tens of millions of dollars today, he said. The estate currently is in active negotiations for about 20 artworks.

Stern, who inherited a Dusseldorf gallery from his father, was ordered to liquidate his holdings through a Nazi-approved dealer in 1937, according to court documents. He never received the proceeds of the sale.

In Canada after the war, Stern tried to recover his collection. He became a prosperous art dealer and before he died in 1987 set up his estate mainly to benefit Montreal's Concordia and McGill University, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Different Case

Cases involving a forced art sale aren't all bound to win in court. In her ruling, the judge stressed the fact that Stern received no compensation from the forced sale and that he subsequently undertook efforts to recover the art.

``One must look at the entire set of facts,'' said Monica Dugot, Christie's International's director of restitution. ``You might have cases where the claimant or heirs received some proceeds from a sale, or might not have tried until more recently to recover the art.''

Christie's and Sotheby's both have assisted in returning artworks to the Stern estate, Epstein said.

The Winterhalter picture was the fourth recovery for the universities. This was the first time the restitution project resorted to court, Epstein said.

``This case means the situation will change dramatically,'' said Monika Tatzkow, the Berlin-based author of a handbook on restitution cases, ``Nazi Looted Art,'' who helps Nazi victims and their heirs win back art lost during the Third Reich. ``It means the original owner of an artwork hasn't lost it if he was forced to sell it at auction for reasons of racial persecution. This court ruling will be referred to in other countries, too.''

To contact the reporters on this story: Linda Sandler in New York at ; Catherine Hickley in Berlin at .
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