The oil painting of the virgin and child is attributed to the Flemish artist, the Master of Flemalle (1375-1444), and was bequeathed to the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart in 1948. The museum and the Holocaust Claims Processing Office in New York identified it as one of several works sold in 1938 to secure an exit permit for Stern’s mother Selma, according to a statement by Concordia University in Montreal, which is one of his heirs.
Stern’s estate is managed by three universities: Concordia and McGill in Montreal and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The painting is only the 10th of about 400 missing works to be restituted, and the first by a German museum. The handover took place at a ceremony at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin.
“The most immediate challenge lies in encouraging a number of other museums currently in possession of Stern paintings to follow the lead of the Staatsgalerie,” Alan Shepard, the president of Concordia, said in the statement sent by e-mail.
Julius Stern founded his Dusseldorf gallery 100 years ago and it passed to his son Max Stern in 1934, a year after the Nazis seized power. Stern was informed in 1935 that as a Jew, he could no longer practice his profession. He was forced to sell the contents of his gallery at an auction in 1937.
Stern fled to London in 1938, later making his way to Canada. He settled in Montreal in 1941.
He became one of the most important art dealers in Canadian history and died in 1987 without children, leaving the bulk of his estate to the universities. In 2002, the colleges began a campaign to recover the lost art, creating the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, administered by Concordia.
Concordia has insured the painting for $1 million, said Clarence Epstein, who heads the restitution project.
He said the heirs’ primary aim will be to confirm the attribution of the painting. The collector who donated it to the Staatsgalerie believed it was by the Master of Flemalle, an artist about whom little is known. Many art historians say he is the same person as Robert Campin, who employed the artist Rogier van der Weyden in his workshop.
“It will stay in Europe for a while,” Epstein said of the painting. “It needs some scholarly attention and some technical analysis.”
Theresia Bauer, the minister responsible for science, research and art in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, said the painting may be by an anonymous Westphalian master.
“We have a historic responsibility to research and restitute cultural goods expropriated by the Nazis,” Bauer said in a statement sent by e-mail.
Other paintings the Max Stern Art Restitution Project has recovered include “The Masters of the Goldsmith Guild in Amsterdam in 1701,” by Juriaen Pool II, which was returned by a German casino in 2011, and a painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger, restituted by a museum in the Netherlands.