Holland Returns a Florid Brueghel Allegory, Once Looted by Nazis

Artinfo 18 November 2010
By Kate Delmling

Brueghel the Younger's "Allegory of Earth and Water"

THE HAGUE— The Dutch government has returned Brueghel the Younger's "Allegory of Earth and Water" — also known as "Allegory of Life and Water" — to its rightful owners after discovering that the work had been stolen by Nazis during World War II. Concordia University instigated restitution proceedings on behalf of the three beneficiaries of Düsseldorf art dealer Max Stern's estate: Concordia and McGill University in Montreal and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Although the painting's history cannot be exactly traced — it did not feature in the forced sale of Stern's collection to Nazis in 1937 — the Dutch government's Restitutions Committee decided that Stern had clearly been stripped of the Brueghel under duress, according to a Concordia press release. He may have sold it to pay for his mother's flight from Germany or it may have been left behind and seized by the Nazis when Stern himself fled, first to Britain and then to Montreal, where he died in 1987.

It is known, however, that the Brueghel painting surfaced in the possession of Jan Dik, Jr., a Dutch art dealer who trafficked in work stolen by Hitler's forces. From there, it went to Hamburg's Kunsthalle Museum, where the Allies recovered it after the war and transferred it to the Netherlands. When the rightful owners could not be identified, it was standard practice for Allied forces to transfer ownership to the country of the work's presumed origin. Most recently, the painting was housed in the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch.

The Dutch government — which established the Restitutions Committee in 2001 — has taken an active role in returning artwork looted by the Nazis. Elsewhere, the Holocaust Claims Processing Office in New York and the Art Loss Register in London have aided the Max Stern Restitution Project, administered by Concordia, in its quest to recover stolen art. Judith Woodsworth, president of Concordia University, said in a statement that "it is our hope that we will be able to recover many of the hundreds of works that were looted from the collection of Dr. Stern — notably those hanging in other European museums."

In some countries, restitution has proven a far more difficult process. The German auction house Lempertz — which was recently revealed to have been duped by a ring of master art forgers — has offered works from the Stern collection at auction despite entreaties by the Max Stern estate. These works include Alexander Adriaenssen's "Fish Still Life," which hit the auction block in November of last year. Even the identification of the painting as Nazi-looted art by the Lost Art Database in Germany did not sway Lempertz — which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the same auction house that oversaw the "Jew sale" of Stern's extensive collection in 1937. Prospective buyers may have learned of the painting's tainted history, however, because the Adriaenssen work did not find a purchaser.

The Brueghel painting depicts two colorfully dressed women in an idealized landscape, pictured with a flowing pitcher of water, a catch of fish at their feet. It will be exhibited next month at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. There, another work from the Stern collection is also on loan: Franz Xaver Winterhalter's 19th-century painting "Girl from the Sabine Mountains." The owner, a German baroness living in Rhode Island who had inherited the painting from her father, tried to sell it surreptitiously in Germany while its provenance was being investigated, but a U.S. federal court ruled that it had to be returned to the Stern estate.
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