A federal appeals panel ruled yesterday that a painting owned by a German baroness that long hung on her walls in Rhode Island had, in effect, been stolen from a Jewish art collector during the Holocaust.
The decision upheld a finding by Chief U.S. District Judge Mary M. Lisi that collector Max Stern was robbed of the artwork when the Nazis forced him to sell it at auction for vastly less than its value.
“A de facto confiscation of a work of art that arose out of a notorious exercise of man’s inhumanity to man now ends with the righting of that wrong … ,” Senior Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya wrote in yesterday’s decision. “The mills of justice grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.”
Stern’s estate brought suit three years ago against Maria-Luise Bissonnette, the baroness whose stepfather bought the painting at a German auction house in 1937. Bissonnette later inherited the work, Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s Girl from the Sabiner Mountains.
“In broad context, this rights a historic wrong,” said Thomas R. Kline, who represented the Stern estate in its effort to recover the work. “This is the first case [in the nation] in which a forced sale is found to be the equivalent of a theft.”
The case’s roots extend back nearly a century to 1913, when Stern’s father, Julius, opened a gallery in Dusseldorf, Germany, court records show. Stern inherited the gallery in 1934 and soon began receiving letters from the Reich Chamber for the Fine Arts, an arm of the Nazi government, ordering him to liquidate his inventory because he lacked “personal qualities to be a suitable exponent of German culture.”
Stern appealed, but was forced in 1937 to auction his pieces off at well below their value. Fearing for his life, Stern fled Germany. He eventually settled in Canada, where he became a preeminent art collector and dealer. The German government froze his assets, meaning he never received a dime from the sale.
For decades, he hunted for his artworks, even initiating legal proceedings in Germany. Upon his death, in 1987, his estate launched its own recovery effort.
The estate learned in 2004 that Girl from the Sabiner Mountains had been purchased by Dr. Karl Wilharm in 1937. It had hung in the family’s private collection for decades, with only one brief exhibition.
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 possession of the painting in 1959. She formally inherited it in 1991, the same year she moved to Rhode Island with her second husband.
Bissonnette put it up for sale at a Cranston auction house in 2003. An appraisal placed the value at $67,000 to $94,000. Bissonnette, who has no children, said she had undergone operations for breast cancer in 2000 and 2002 and was seeking money for medications.
The Stern estate learned the painting was going up for auction in 2005 through a database of lost and stolen art. The auction house agreed to withdraw the painting. The estate filed suit in U.S. District Court after talks with Bissonnette to retrieve it broke down.
Judge Lisi ruled in the estate’s favor last December, saying, “It is clear that Dr. Stern’s relinquishment of his property was anything but voluntary.” She ordered the painting returned to Stern’s estate.
Bissonnette appealed to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments last month. “I’m fighting for justice,” she said in an earlier interview. “Stop disturbing people. It was a legal sale.”
In ruling yesterday, the appeals panel rejected arguments that a delay in pursuing the case hindered Bissonnette’s defense. Stern, the court found, had pursued the painting diligently.
“Proving prejudice requires more than the frenzied brandishing of a cardboard sword; it requires at least a hint of what witnesses or evidence a timeous investigation might have yielded,” Selya wrote.
Bissonnette, 84, of Park Row West in Providence, and her lawyer, David A. Levy, did not return phone calls yesterday.
The decision will clear the way for the estate to pursue hundreds of other works looted from Stern by the Nazis during the Holocaust, said Clarence Epstein, Ph.D, of Concordia University, one of the estate’s beneficiaries.
“It will send a message to other jurisdictions in the United States and abroad,” Epstein said. “We feel this just vindicates his lifelong pursuit of his claims.”
Bissonnette turned the work over to the estate following Lisi’s ruling last December, Kline said. It remains in Germany, but will be incorporated into a show chronicling the forced sales and Stern’s quest to recover his collection.