Dispute over painting rooted in Nazi Germany

Rhode Island News 12 October 2008
By Edward Fitzpatrick, Journal Staff Writer


German baroness Maria Louise Bissonnette, left, with her husband, Conrad, at their home in downtown Providence. In right photo is the painting Girl from the Sabiner Mountains.
The Providence Journal / Glenn Osmundson

PROVIDENCE — With a large oil painting of her stepfather hanging on the wall, the German baroness sat at her dining room table in a downtown high-rise last week, pointing to a copy of a 71-year-old bill of sale from Nazi-era Germany.

The document shows that Maria-Luise Bissonnette’s stepfather bought a painting at the Lempertz Auction House in Cologne, Germany, in November 1937. Bissonnette, 84, who became a U.S. citizen in 1950 after marrying an American counterintelligence officer, inherited the painting, titled Girl from the Sabiner Mountains.

And on Thursday, as she sat in her Park Row West apartment, Bissonnette offered the bill of sale as a response to those who say the painting was, in effect, stolen from a Jewish art dealer named Max Stern. “How can you say that when you have a receipt in your hand?” she asked.

Bissonnette pulled out a January 2008 letter from a Lempertz Auction House official who says Stern attended the 1937 auction, was involved in compiling the auction catalogue and had proceeds transferred to his account.

“So I’m asking you,” she said, “is that under duress?”

According to lawyers for Stern’s estate and the top federal judge in Rhode Island, the answer is: Absolutely.

“Over 70 years ago, the Nazi party took art from Jewish citizens as part of a systemic plan to rob Jewish citizens of their property, their identity and, ultimately, their lives,” Chief U.S. District Judge Mary M. Lisi wrote in a December decision, which ordered Bissonnette to turn the painting over to Stern’s estate.

In her ruling, Lisi noted that even Bissonnette’s lawyer had not disputed that the Nazi government made Stern liquidate his inventory in a forced sale. She said Stern fled Germany before receiving any proceeds, and she said, “It is clear that Dr. Stern’s relinquishment of his property was anything but voluntary.”

In an interview Friday, a lawyer for Stern’s estate, Thomas R. Kline, said, “Nobody is saying her stepfather didn’t pay the money or that he knew what was going on, but the bill of sale doesn’t make it a valid sale. There were frequently transactions that appeared nominally valid on their face but were understood after the war to have been based on coercion and duress due to racial persecution.”

An expert hired by Stern’s estate, Lynn M. Nicholas, said in court documents that “Max Stern’s experience is a textbook example of the implementation of the Nazi anti-Jewish policies and of their method of confiscation of Jewish assets.”

Nicholas, who wrote a 1994 book titled The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War, said, “The Nazi system of confiscation and theft was purposely convoluted and drawn out. The idea was to achieve their objective of eliminating Jews and other aliens from German society while exploiting their assets and making the process appear legal.”

Bissonnette is now appealing Lisi’s ruling, and on Wednesday lawyers argued the case in Providence during a rare visit by judges from the Boston-based 1st U.S. Court of Appeals, which is expected to rule in three months or so. The appellate panel was in Providence to celebrate downtown’s federal courthouse, which was built 100 years ago.

The roots of this legal dispute reach back nearly as far.

In 1913, Max Stern’s father, Julius Stern, opened an art gallery in Dusseldorf, Germany. Julius Stern died in 1934, leaving his gallery to his son, and one year later, the Reich Chamber for the Fine Arts began sending letters demanding he liquidate his inventory.

In her report, Nicholas said all art dealers had to belong to the Reich Chamber for the Fine Arts, a branch of the Reich Chamber of Culture controlled by Joseph Goebbels. But she said Stern was denied membership because he didn’t “possess the necessary qualities or reliability to promote German culture properly for the German people and nation” — a euphemism meaning Stern was Jewish.

Stern appealed without success, and on Sept. 13, 1937, he received a final order to sell his inventory through a dealer approved by the Reich Chamber. On Nov. 13, 1937, the Lempertz Auction House held an auction in which Stern’s paintings sold for “well below market value,” Lisi wrote.

Soon after the auction, Stern fled Germany for Paris. The German government froze his assets, and he never received a dime of the auction proceeds, the Stern estate said in court papers. Just before the outbreak of World War II, Stern joined his sister in London, and he later moved to Canada, where he became a preeminent art collector and dealer.

Bissonnette’s stepfather, Dr. Karl Wilharm, bought Girl from the Sabiner Mountains through the 1937 auction for 4,140 reichsmarks. Wilharm kept the painting in his private collection, except for one occasion in 1954 when it was exhibited at a museum in Kassel, Germany. Bissonnette has had the painting since 1959, and she inherited it from her mother’s estate in 1991, Lisi wrote.

So how did the painting, and Bissonnette, end up in Providence?

Bissonnette — who was born in Germany and inherited the title of baroness from her father, Baron von Morsey-Picard — explained that after World War II, American forces took over her family’s home in Hofgeismar, Germany, and Bissonnette met an American counterintelligence officer named David Youmans. “We fell in love,” she said.

In 1947, they married in Youman’s hometown of St. Paul, Minn., and she became an American citizen in 1950. They moved to Washington, D.C., and divorced in 1956.

Bissonnette remained in Washington, D.C., and began taking lessons at an Arthur Murray dance school. That’s where she met Conrad Bissonnette, who was from Woonsocket and was working for the Central Intelligence Agency while also serving as a part-time dance instructor.

They married in 1959, and she went to work for the U.S. State Department, teaching German to foreign diplomats before they went overseas, she said. After retiring, they moved to Woonsocket in 1983, and in 1999 they moved to Providence.

Last week, as she sat at her dining room table with her husband, Bissonnette was asked why she doesn’t let the painting go, given the protracted legal battle. “You must be kidding,” she replied, appearing stunned. “It means a lot to me. And I grew up with it.”

An appraisal has placed the value of the painting at $67,000 to $94,000. Bissonnette, who has no children, said she had operations for breast cancer in 2000 and 2002 and tried to sell the painting to help pay for medications. While she lives in an apartment complex with a concierge and a view of the State House, she said receiving the income now would help pay the bills.

But Bissonnette said the legal battle isn’t about money. She said she feels she is right. “I’m fighting for justice,” she said. “Stop disturbing people. It was a legal sale.”

In April 2003, a Cranston auction house, Estates Unlimited, received the painting on consignment from Bissonnette, and a public auction was scheduled for Jan. 6, 2005. But just before that date, the Stern Estate learned about the auction from the Art Loss Register, a database of lost and stolen art, and Estates Unlimited agreed to withdraw the painting from the auction block. Negotiation attempts failed, and in May 2006 the Stern estate sued in federal court.

In its suit, the Stern estate said, “Dr. Wilharm was a physician who, during the National Socialist era, was a high-ranking member of the S.A. [‘Sturm Abteilung’ or Storm Troopers] and joined the Nazi party in 1932.” American occupation forces arrested Wilharm after the war, and he was “interned for approximately 15 months due to his previous Nazi affiliations and activities,” the suit said.

Bissonnette took strong exception to the way Stern’s estate has described her stepfather and said part of the reason she is fighting the legal battle is to defend her stepfather’s reputation.

In a June 2005 letter sent to Bissonnette’s lawyer, a researcher hired by the Stern estate said Wilharm provided medical care to local Storm Troopers who gave him a rank equivalent to lieutenant colonel. In the letter, Willi Korte, who has spent 25 years investigating war crimes and Nazi-looted art, wrote, “The main accusations against him after the war were his involvement in the SA brutalities on March 25-26, 1933. The Storm Troopers of Hofgeismar began to round up local Jews and opponents of the Nazi regime and took them to [an unused factory owned by Wilharm], where they were severely beaten, resulting in the subsequent death of some of the victims.”

Korte said Wilharm was never accused of participating in the beatings but “these accusations referred to his knowledge, encouragement and consent of these beatings.”

Bissonnette said her stepfather “never knew they were beating people, and when he found out, he was very upset about it.” She said her stepfather was a “country doctor” who treated Storm Troopers but also treated Jewish patients.

Bissonnette acknowledged her parents joined the Nazi party but said they were not as involved as has been portrayed. “All the people had to belong to the Nazi organization, or they wouldn’t be able to work,” she said. “We knew what Hitler was doing was not right, but what could you do? Because there were so many little Hitlers. We were all under pressure.”

In an interview, Korte said he finds it significant Wilharm joined the Nazi party before the Nazis came to power and was not one of those “disoriented, unemployed Germans who joined because Hitler and the party was making big promises.”

But Korte said the Stern estate has not made a big deal about Wilharm’s Nazi affiliations during the litigation.

“Stern lost this painting not to Wilharm, but to the Nazis, because the Nazis forced him to sell it,” Korte said. “At the time Wilharm bought the painting, it had already been taken from Stern. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter whether Wilharm was Jewish, an S.A. member or Santa Claus.”
© website copyright Central Registry 2021