Federal court hears case of Nazi-era painting

Rhode Island News 9 October 2008
By Edward Fitzpatrick Journal Staff Writer

Girl from the Sabiner Mountains, obtained from a 1937 auction in Nazi Germany, is at the heart of case involving a German baroness now living in Providence and the estate of a Jewish art dealer who was ordered to sell the work.
AP / Concordia University Files

PROVIDENCE — Lawyers yesterday debated whether a German baroness who lives in Providence will be allowed to hold onto a painting that a judge says was unlawfully taken from a Jewish art dealer in Nazi Germany 71 years ago.

The baroness, Maria-Louise Bissonnette, 84, looked on as lawyers argued during a rare visit by judges from the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. As part of the centennial of the federal courthouse in Kennedy Plaza, three federal appellate judges were in Providence to hear arguments in five cases.

The court session began with Bissonnette’s lawyer, David A. Levy, asking the 1st Circuit to overturn a December ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge M. Lisi, who ordered Bissonnette to turn the painting over to the estate of the late Max Stern.

Stern was ordered to liquidate his family’s Dusseldorf art gallery in 1937 because he was Jewish, according to court records. Bissonnette’s stepfather, Dr. Karl Wilharm, bought the painting at auction, and Bissonnette inherited the painting from her mother’s estate, court records show. The oil painting, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, is titled Girl from the Sabiner Mountains, and an appraisal has placed its value at $67,000 to $94,000.

At the outset of his argument, Levy told the judges the painting had either been “purchased or stolen.” And that prompted Circuit Judge Kermit V. Lipez to say, “There is no dispute about ownership, is there?”

“Well,” Levy replied, “I’m not quite in agreement with the court.” He said Bissonnette inherited the painting, and the Stern estate “literally stumbled on the painting.”

Senior Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya said Levy’s brief “does not contain a single word” contesting ownership of the painting. Rather, Levy’s brief argued that Stern and his estate waited too long to pursue the claim and “did not exert sufficient efforts” to try to reclaim the painting. Levy’s brief also argued that Bissonnette should have been allowed to reopen the process of obtaining information from the other side in the litigation.

After the court hearing, Levy told The Journal he had been attempting to raise “a question of possession, not ownership” during his argument before the judges.

A lawyer for Stern’s estate, Thomas R. Kline, told the judges, “The question of theft is one of historical fact based on the activities of the Third Reich.”

In his legal brief, Kline said the Reich Chamber of the Fine Arts, an official organization of the Nazi government, began sending letters to Stern in 1935, demanding that he liquidate his gallery. In 1937, Stern received a final order to dissolve the gallery through a Nazi-approved auction house, and a Cologne auction house sold Stern’s paintings in November 1937 at below-market value, the brief said. Stern fled to Paris a month later and never received any money from the auction, he said.

Since the painting was stolen, the sale to Bissonnette’s stepfather was invalid, Kline said. He objected to the idea that Stern’s estate stumbled upon the painting, saying, “The very first time the painting was made available for sale, it was found.”

For the last 71 years, Bissonnette’s family has kept the painting in their homes, except for a brief exhibition in Germany in the early 1950s, Kline said. But in 2006, Stern’s estate learned the painting was being offered for sale by a Cranston auction house, which had received the painting on consignment from Bissonnette. The auction house withdrew the painting from the auction block after being contacted by an art recovery company hired by Stern’s estate, according to Kline’s brief.

At the courthouse yesterday, The Journal asked Bissonnette and her husband, Conrad, why she should be allowed to keep the painting. “Her father paid for it,” Conrad Bissonnette replied. He noted that 71 years had passed and the painting had been displayed in a museum in Germany at one point.

“That was a legal sale,” Maria-Louise Bissonnette said. She said she still has documents from the auction house in Germany. When asked if it was a forced sale, she said, “No. Not really.” She said Stern “had two-and-a-half years to dissolve his gallery and sell the painting.”

In his legal brief, Bissonnette’s lawyer said he “does not quarrel with the difficulties associated with locating lost or stolen property in the aftermath of a war that engulfed the world for almost six years. Records were certainly destroyed.” But, Levy wrote, “the efforts to locate the painting were not reasonable under the circumstances of this case.” For example, he said that while Stern placed ads in art publications in 1948 and 1952 in an attempt to locate his lost artwork, neither ad featured the Girl from the Sabiner Mountains.

In his legal brief, Kline said Stern made many efforts to recover his collection by, for example, making a trip to Europe in 1949 and filing claims in German restitution courts in the early 1960s. Stern “did everything one would expect a theft victim to do to reclaim his property,” Kline wrote.

After the hearing, Kline said the painting has been turned over to the Stern estate but is still in Germany. He said Bissonnette shipped the painting to Germany before the estate filed its lawsuit. The Stern estate benefits three institutions: McGill University and Concordia University in Montreal and Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The 1st Circuit usually tries to rule within three months of hearing arguments. The ornate Courtroom 1 was filled for yesterday’s arguments, and those in attendance included a judge from Nepal, O.P. Suvedi, who has a daughter at Brown University. Before the arguments, Chief Circuit Judge Sandra L. Lynch said, “While we have a fairly nice courthouse in Boston, it’s nice to be in a place as historic as this.”

A lighthearted moment came when the sound system began blaring with feedback. The judges looked beneath the bench to try to fix the problem, and when the noise ceased, Lynch said, “Well, my husband will never believe I fixed something. Let’s go with full voice and ignore the electronics.”
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