Dealer Returns Painting Lost in Nazi-Era Forced Sale

Bloomberg 6 May 2009
By Catherine Hickley

New York art dealer Richard Feigen today returned an Italian baroque painting to the heirs of Max Stern, a Jewish gallery owner who was forced to sell the work before fleeing Nazi Germany 72 years ago.

The picture of St. Jerome in the wilderness, attributed to Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619), shows the bare-chested saint turning from his book as two angels greet him. Feigen bought the work in 2000 at Kunsthaus Lempertz in Cologne, the same auction house that sold the contents of Stern’s gallery before the war after he was forced to liquidate his business.

Feigen said he began to wonder about the painting when he read reports two weeks ago about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials seizing a Dutch Old Master portrait sold in the Stern auction from Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts in New York. After establishing that the Carracci work was indeed part of the same forced sale, Feigen contacted the Max Stern Estate to discuss returning it.

“That’s where it should go,” Feigen said in a telephone interview, when asked how he felt about handing it back to Stern’s heirs. The painting hung in his living room and he had never intended to sell it, Feigen said.

Max Stern sold 228 paintings via Lempertz in 1937. In a case centering on another work sold at the auction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled last year that the forced sales were “a de facto confiscation,” and therefore the paintings can be treated as stolen goods.

Sold Under Duress

That paved the way for the April 2 seizure of the Dutch Old Master, a portrait of a bagpipe player. It was the first time law-enforcement authorities have moved to recover art sold in a forced auction before World War II to the heirs of the original owners. Steigrad had discovered three days before that the painting was auctioned under duress before World War II.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement also facilitated the return of the painting of St. Jerome, Feigen said. Agent Bonnie Goldblatt made an appointment to pick up the picture from his gallery last week, he said.

“We are grateful for the cooperation of art dealer Richard Feigen in the return of the Carracci and hope that his leadership will encourage his peers in the trade to also take a good look at their own works,” Peter Smith, Special Agent in Charge of I.C.E. investigations in New York, said in a statement released by the Max Stern Estate.

Compensation Request

The Lempertz catalog of 2000 included Max Stern’s ownership in its description of the painting’s provenance, according to the Max Stern Estate’s Web site. The estate first listed the picture as missing with the Art Loss Register database in 2004.

Feigen said he has not yet approached Lempertz about possible compensation for the sale. He paid 100,000 deutsche marks (then about $45,000) for the painting.

“I was surprised that Lempertz had been the auctioneer in the forced sale in 1937 and then resold it to me in 2000,” he said. “I have not approached them and won’t until I get the signal from the authorities here.”

Lempertz is managed by Henrik Hanstein, whose family has owned the auction house since 1875. The company also sold the Dutch Old Master portrait of the bagpipe player to a gallery in London, which then sold it on to Steigrad.

‘No Legal Basis’

Hanstein said that under German law, he could not expect the consignor of the painting to compensate Feigen for his loss nine years later.

“In Germany, there is no legal basis for compensation,” Hanstein said in a telephone interview from Cologne. “Under German law, Feigen is the rightful owner as he bought the painting in good faith.”

He said he wouldn’t now knowingly sell any paintings from the Stern auction.

“In 2000, the Stern-auction 392 was not yet known as a restitution case. And even today it can be argued whether or not the restitution of the Stern works is a legitimate demand since Max Stern was compensated for his losses in 1964,” he said.

Max Stern’s estate is managed by three universities: Concordia and McGill in Montreal and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The art dealer left Germany for Paris in December 1937, with nothing but a suitcase. He later settled in Montreal, rebuilding his business there. He died in 1987 without children, leaving the bulk of his estate to the universities.

University Campaign In 2002, the universities began a campaign to recover the lost art, creating the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, administered by Concordia. The painting of St. Jerome is only the fifth of the 228 paintings he sold at Lempertz to be recovered. Two paintings from Stern’s private collection have also been returned.

“Our research has determined that a number of German auction houses have regularly offered tainted property in the postwar period,” said Clarence Epstein, the head of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project. “Offering works with problematic ownership histories into the international art market is clearly backfiring.”

Feigen said the attribution of the painting to Carracci is also in doubt, because the last catalogue raisonne of the painter’s works said the picture was not one of his.

“At the moment, its value would be very much in question with respect to the authenticity,” Feigen said.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at
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