BERLIN — Two paintings that the Nazis forced a Jewish art dealer to sell off in the 1930s have been returned to his estate, and its heirs said Wednesday they were working hard to recover hundreds more.
The ordeal shows just how painstaking the restitution process remains, even 10 years after the world pledged to work toward returning the estimated 250,000 to 600,000 pieces looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners.
The Max Stern estate is working to recover all of the estimated 400 works sold off from Stern's collection between 1935 and 1937, estate representative Clarence Epstein said Wednesday.
The returned paintings were put on display — "Flight from Egypt," by the circle of Jan Wellens de Cock, and "Girl from the Sabine Mountains," by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. The latter was a copy. Both paintings will loaned to art museums in Canada for display.
Stern escaped to England in 1937 after the Nazi government forced him to liquidate his art gallery. He later moved to Canada, where he again became an art dealer after World War II. After his death in 1987, Stern — who had no children — left his estate to McGill and Concordia Universities in Montreal and Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Only 25 pieces of Stern's original collection have been located so far in public and private collections, Epstein said.
"We are now here ... to begin the process of pursuing claims on the works that are circulating" in the art world, he said.
The universities have set up the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, aiming to eventually reclaim the entire collection, much of which is believed to be held in collections in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.
Major international auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's have helped to discover where some works ended up and to mediate their return — as was the case with the de Cock painting.
But the request for the Winterhalter work wound its way through U.S. courts for more than a year until the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston last month ordered that it be returned to the Stern estate.
The case set a precedent in the United States for restitution cases by equating works where Nazis forced a sale with art that was looted or stolen.
"The U.S. courts now have ruled definitively that ordering Stern to sell the painting was the same as confiscating or stealing it from him," said Thomas Kline, an attorney who represented the Stern estate.
In this file photo taken in the 1930s in Germany and provided by Maria-Luise Bissonnette her late stepfather, Dr. Karl Heinrich Christian Wilharm, right, with wife, Lili, standing alongside an oil on canvas painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, (1806-1873), entitled "Girl from the Sabine Mountains," just above and to the left. Heirs to the estate of a leading German Jewish art dealer presented Wednesday Dec. 10, 2008 two recently recovered paintings sold under duress by Max Stern in 1937 when the Nazis ordered him to liquidate his art gallery. The paintings, "Flight from Egypt," by the Circle of Jan Wellens de Cock, and "Girl from the Sabine Mountains," are among five out of a collection of 400 that the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, is working to recover. (AP Photo/courtesy Maria-Luise Bissonnette)