Stern estate tussles with auction house

Canadian Jewish News 17 February 2011
By Janice Arnold

The fate of an Old Master painting that the estate of Max Stern claims was looted by the Nazis and is now in the hands of a German auction house remains in the air.

The executors of the estate and its beneficiaries, Concordia University, McGill University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, say the Cologne-based Lempertz auctioneers told them the painting was sold in November on condition. If the claimants produced sufficient evidence of ownership within 30 days, the sale would be annulled.

The estate did provide what it believes is proof, but it failed to make the deadline and was given to understand that the sale would go through. Its last communication with Lempertz was in late January.

On Feb. 9, Concordia, which heads the Stern art restitution project, issued a press release that said Lempertz had rejected the evidence and was proceeding with the sale, hoping the publicity would make the auction house change its mind.

It may have worked. Karl-Sax Feddersen told The CJN on Feb. 11 that the sale had been halted. The bad news for the estate now is that the consignor, an elderly German man, wants the painting back, and Lempertz has no choice but to comply under German law, Feddersen said.

Furthermore, the consignor has no interest in entering into negotiations with the estate to reach a settlement, he said. Lempertz, Feddersen said, tried unsuccessfully to convince him, but the painting was given to him some 50 years ago by his grandfather as a graduation present and has sentimental value. The man also claims the painting has been in his family since the 1920s.

The painting is Fish still life, shellfish, perch, pike, oyster and cat by the Flemish baroque artist Alexander Adriaenssen (1587-1661). It is not materially valuable. Feddersen said it might fetch between 4,000 to 5,000 euros. The conditional sale was for 1,000 euros.

The estate says the painting is among the more than 200 paintings that Stern, then a Dusseldorf gallery owner, was forced by the Nazis to liquidate in 1937. The auctioneer was the very same Lempertz.

Proving the claim has been complicated by the fact that the 1937 auction catalogue contained a description, but no illustration of the painting.

Feddersen said that the latest evidence that the estate provided appears to support the claim, and that’s why the sale was halted. He added that dealing with the estate has been difficult, because of its adamant position that the only acceptable settlement is handing over the painting without compensation to the person who believes he is the rightful owner.

Willi Korte, the Washington-based principal researcher for the Stern art restitution project, said Lempertz never put the estate in contact with the consignor of the Adriaenssen painting, and he was unaware of any attempts by the auction house to broker talks.

“In 2009, the estate asked Lempertz to pull the painting from sale and work together to perform the required due diligence on the provenance and identification of what is believed to be the same painting lost to Dr. Stern at the hands of the Nazis through a forced sale in 1937 at the same auction house,” said restitution project head Clarence Epstein of Concordia.

Its researchers received the opinion of a leading authority on the artist that the painting sold in 1937 and the one currently with Lempertz are the same.

The Holocaust Claims Processing Office of the State of New York Banking Department also discovered that, prior to its arrival at the Galerie Stern in Dusseldorf, the painting was in the collection of Otto Jourdan in Frankfurt. It was established that the back of paintings in the Jourdan Collection all bore a distinct identification label.

“On the Adriaenssen painting currently with Lempertz, there is a visible faded area where a label once was affixed, which is a perfect match in location, size and shape with the Jourdan Collection labels. It is unclear when this label was removed and why,” Epstein said.

Concordia released two photos, one of the back of the Adriaenssen painting, showing where the label is missing, and another of a painting from the Jourdan Collection with the label affixed.

“This important finding and other consistencies surrounding the subject matter, artist’s signature and precise measurements, lead the estate to believe there is little doubt the painting is the same one that was auctioned off in the forced sale.”

Feddersen noted that the situation has been further complicated by the fact the Jourdan heirs have now also made a claim on the painting. They say the Galerie Stern never owned the painting and that it only held it on consignment.

Since 2008, when the Stern estate recovered a painting formerly in the collection of West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, considerable inroads have been made with representatives of German private, public and corporate collections that hold Stern paintings looted during the Nazi period, Epstein noted.

Therefore, the Lempertz response until now has been particularly “disappointing.”

The estate expects to announce later this year that a number of other Stern paintings now in Germany will be returned.
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