Seventh Stern painting restored to estate

Canadian Jewish News 14 May 2009
By Janice Arnold

MONTREAL — New York art dealer Richard Feigen formally returned a valuable painting that the Nazis forced Max Stern to sell at a cut rate almost 72 years ago after the work was identified by U.S. law enforcement officials.

It’s the second painting – of the hundreds of artworks Stern was forced to sell in the 1930s – that’s been recovered by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in less than two weeks.

The painting of St. Jerome, attributed to Italian Baroque artist Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619), was handed over to the estate’s beneficiaries – Concordia and McGill Universities and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – in a ceremony at the Leo Baeck Institute in Manhattan. Clarence Epstein, who directs the Concordia-based Stern art restitution project, took possession of the painting.

The Italian Baroque painting of
St. Jerome was restored to the
Stern estate.

This is the seventh painting to be restored to the estate since the restitution project was launched in 2002 on behalf of the executors. In April, on Yom Hashoah, the U.S. government returned a 17th-century Dutch painting of a bagpiper to the estate.

That work was seized by agents from ICE, an investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, from another New York art dealer, who said he didn’t know about its tainted history.

Feigen also didn’t know the full provenance of the Carracci, but was prompted to look into its past after reading about the Dutch painting’s return. He contacted the Stern estate to discuss its return.

Feigen unwittingly purchased the Carracci in 2000 through Cologne’s Lempertz auction house, the same auctioneer that conducted the sale in November 1937 when Stern was forced by the Nazi authorities to liquidate the last of the inventory from his Düsseldorf gallery because Jews were barred from the art trade.

Feigen paid a reported 100,000 Deutsche marks for the work, about $685,000 (US) at current rates. He said it had been hanging in his home and he had never intended to sell it.

The Lempertz catalogue of 2000 included Stern’s past ownership in its description of the Carracci painting, although not the circumstances of its sale. The estate listed the painting as missing with the London-based Art Loss Register in 2004.

The other New York dealer, Lawrence Steigrad, had acquired the Dutch picture from a London dealer, who had bought it in November 2007, also through Lempertz, which is still owned by the same family as in 1937.

Peter J. Smith, special agent in charge ICE’s office of investigations in New York, said, “We are grateful for the co-operation of… [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.”

Feigen said that it “was as a result of the news on the bagpiper [artist unknown] that I made the connection between the Carracci and its forced sale in 1937. There was then no question in my mind on how to proceed.”

Stern liquidated 228 paintings at the 1937 auction. He also sold some 200 other works under duress after 1935.

Following the war, Stern became one of Canada’s most prominent art dealers and owner of the Dominion Gallery in Montreal until his death in 1987.

Epstein used the occasion to again urge German auction houses, a number of which he said continue to regularly make available Nazi-looted works for sale, to take heed of the swift and decisive action U.S. authorities are taking.

“Offering works with problematic ownership histories into the international art market is clearly backfiring,” he said. Last year, a U.S. Court of Appeals Court ruled that the forced sale of the Stern art was a “de facto confiscation,” therefore all of the lost paintings are stolen goods.

Lempertz’s manager, Henrik Hanstein, told Bloomberg News that he wouldn’t knowingly sell any more paintings from the 1937 Stern auction, which he added was not known as a restitution case nine years ago, because Stern received compensation from West Germany in 1964.

He also said Feigen has no right under German law to compensation for the painting from the consignor, who hasn’t been identified. “Under German law, Feigen is the rightful owner, as he bought the painting in good faith,” Hanstein was quoted as saying.

Feigen, a dealer in Old Masters, commented on the artistic significance of the recovered painting of the patron saint of librarians, according to Roman Catholic tradition. “This depiction of the hermit St. Jerome may have been utilized [later] by prominent artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and passed through Italian and French aristocratic families before I acquired it for my own collection.”

The Leo Baeck Institute was chosen as the site of the painting’s return because it is dedicated to the study of the history and culture of German-speaking Jewry.
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