As Germany puts on the much-anticipated exhibition in Bonn of Cornelius Gurlitt’s disputed collection, a strange story has developed not too far away in Düsseldorf. The Stadtmuseum, which is administered by the city itself, had organized—but now cancelled—“Max Stern: from Düsseldorf to Montreal.” The exhibition was scheduled to open in February in Düsseldorf, before traveling to the Haifa art museum in September of 2018 and to the McCord Museum in Montreal in 2019. The city’s acknowledgement that the decision was based on a claim for restitution from the Max Stern Estate is a disturbing development that provides no sound reason to cancel a show about an important dealer who, it is undisputed, was a seminal figure of Nazi persecution.
The exhibition was conceived to address the remarkable story of Max Stern. As I wrote in A Tragic Fate—Law and Ethics in the Battle Over Nazi-Looted Art (Ankerwycke 2017):
Beginning in 1935, [Max] Stern began receiving letters from the Reichskammer der bildenden Künste (the RBK). As discussed before, the RBK had broad supervisory authority over the arts industry. The RBK began demanding that Dr. Stern, as a Jew, liquidate the gallery and its inventory. Finally, the demands coalesced into a single and unambiguous directive. On August 29, 1935 (before the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws), the RBK forbade Dr. Stern from operating a gallery because he was a Jew and ordered him to close the gallery and liquidate its contents. Dr. Stern attempted to appeal this instruction but without success. On September 13, 1937, the RBK sent him a final order to comply immediately. He was given barely two months— until December 15, 1937—to comply.
In keeping with this instruction, Dr. Stern consigned the bulk of the gallery’s inventory to the Kunsthaus Lempertz, an auction house in Cologne.  After the sale, Dr. Stern fled Germany for Paris on December 23, 1937—the same day he was sent a letter from the RBK demanding proof of compliance with the liquidation order.
Dr. Stern eventually made his way to England where, unfortunately, he was interned as an enemy alien (a German) for a time after the outbreak of war. After being released, he immigrated to Canada, where he was again briefly interned. Eventually, he became a prominent Canadian art collector and the director of the Dominion Art Gallery in Montréal. When he died in 1987, he bequeathed his collection to the Dr. and Mrs. Max Stern Foundation.
© 2017 Nicholas M. O’Donnell.
Of note to restitution, the Stern Foundation has overseen the Max Stern Restitution project to seek to recover the works that Stern was forced to sell. Perhaps their most prominent success is the judgment in Rhode Island in 2007 that retuned a painting by Francis Xavier Winterhalter known as Mädchen aus den Sabiner Bergen (Girl from the Sabine Mountains) from a private collection, a case which remains the only final judgment compelling restitution in the United States. The Max Stern Restitution Project has had success in Germany as well—including in Düsseldorf. The city returned Portrait of the Artist by Wilhelm von Schadow to the Stern Estate in 2014. The Schadow painting was item 135 in the 1937 auction.
The painting at the center of the cancellation decision was not named specifically, but The Art Newspaper reported that the Düsseldorf Kunstpalast (also a city museum) withdrew a painting by Andreas Achenbach (Sicilian Landscape (1861) in the hands of a private collector from a different exhibition in July. This is particularly interesting, because another Achenbach was restituted to the Stern estate from a private German collector in 2013. There are two Achenbach’s in the Lempertz catalogue, Norwegian Landscape (1837) (item no. 1) and Mountain Landscape (item no. 2, no date given). The Norwegian Landscape has an illustration in the catalogue but the Mountain Landscape does not. Is the latter the Sicilian Landscape under a different name? It depicts a mountainous coast, it is certainly possible.
As reported by The Art Newspaper, the reason for the cancellation given by Mayor Thomas Geisel was “current demands for information and restitution in German museums in connection with the Galerie Max Stern.” The simple point is this: whatever the unnamed painting that has been claimed is, why would the entire exhibition be cancelled? If the contested object was meant to be part of the show, even assuming the current holder is anonymous and wishes to remain that way, that would have been possible had the exhibition gone on without it. And the object would presumably have been immune from seizure by virtue of its presence in an exhibition. The only reason to cancel the entire show is to punish the Stern Estate for making a claim. For a known commodity like the Stern Estate, that kind of retaliation is outrageous. At the end of the day, whatever the outcome of this individual claim,. Stern, his collection, and his story are historically significant. Taking that away not only from the German public, but also visitors in Montreal and Haifa is very hard to understand.
The presence of the Gurlitt show roughly 50 miles away puts an even more emphatic point on this injustice. I have not yet seen the show and have very mixed feelings about even going (Michael Kimmelman’s review in the New York Times captures this ambivalence perfectly). But taking the Gurlitt exhibition at face value for the moment, "Gurlitt: Status Report” is intended to display the Gurlitt works whose provenance or ownership is disputed or unclear in service of visibility to the public (of the sort that has been lacking since the story broke four years ago this month). If the German government—whose missteps in the field of art restitution are legion in recent years—can put objects on display despite their disputed status, why can’t Düsseldorf? The particularly frustrating irony here is that state and local museums (the Bavarian State Paintings Collections excepted) have in many ways shown a better and more nuanced understanding of restitution principles than the federal government, which has been far more interested in photo opportunities.
February is still three months away. Düsseldorf could do great good by reversing course and holding the exhibition. It should.