MONTREAL — A German museum has restituted a valuable Nazi-looted painting to the estate of the late Max Stern, who owned the Dominion Gallery in Montreal for many years.
The late 15th-century work had been in the possession of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart since 1948. The Jewish Stern, who had owned an art gallery in Dusseldorf, sold the painting under duress from the Nazis in 1938. He did so from London, England, where he had fled the year before, said Clarence Epstein, who heads Concordia University’s Max Stern Art Restitution Project, in a telephone interview from Berlin.
Epstein received Virgin and Child, attributed to the Master of Flémalle, an unknown Flemish artist considered a leading exponent of the early Northern Renaissance, in a ceremony at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin on March 5.
In attendance were representatives of the state-owned museum, which is the first German cultural institution to return a Stern artwork in the 10-year history of the project, as well as of the State of Bavaria-Wurttemberg and the Canadian government, including Jason Kenney, minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism.
This 15th-century painting by the Master of Flémalle was restituted by a German museum to the estate of Max Stern, who had been forced to sell it by the Nazis on the eve of World War II.
This is the 10th artwork recovered by the project since 2006, and the second from Germany. A painting was earlier handed over by a casino in that country.
Epstein said the evidence is that Stern liquidated this painting and several others to help raise the 25,000 Reichsmarks needed to obtain an exit visa for his mother.
Although no bill of sale has been found, it is believed the painting was sold at well below its value. Some 200 paintings of Stern’s were auctioned off previously in Cologne in 1937 for bargain-basement prices under orders from the Nazi regime, just before Stern left the country.
While some gaps in its provenance remain, Epstein said it is known that the painting passed through two hands before 1948. Frankfurt art dealer Alexander Haas sold it to a Dr. Scheufelen, an important collector, during World War II. Scheufelen willed about 125 works to the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, including Virgin and Child.
Epstein would not comment on the painting’s value today, only that it’s “insured for a considerable amount.”
Stern, who died childless in 1987, left the bulk of his estate to Concordia, as well as McGill University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Concordia, which has been working in collaboration with the New York State-based Holocaust Claims Processing Office, corresponded with the State of Baden-Wurttemberg for about five years, Epstein said.
“They felt that the information we had was not complete,” he said. “Then one of our researchers found a key document in Germany, which placed Stern and the painting in that era.”
The painting will not be coming to Montreal immediately, nor has it been decided whether it will be loaned to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, as earlier recovered works have been, said Epstein.
In the meantime, it’s expected the painting will be entrusted to experts, probably in London or New York, for analysis of its physical condition and scholarly perusal.
In the past, Epstein has been critical about the response the restitution project has received in Germany, but he said,
“We had a good relationship with the Staatsgalerie researchers and Baden-Wurttemberg officials. They were very professional. I was impressed with their transparency and willingness to collaborate.”
It is believed that a significant number of the approximately 400 works Stern was forced to sell are in Germany today, including in public institutions.
Concordia president Alan Shepard commented that “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.”
The handover at the embassy took place within the context of another exchange: Canada’s assumption of the chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) from Belgium for the coming year.
Kenney said: “The confiscation and forced sale of cultural property that occurred on an unprecedented scale during World War II was not only a theft, but the undermining of a cultural identity.”
The IHRA (formerly the Task Force for International Co-operation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research) is an intergovernmental body initiated by then-Swedish prime minister Goran Persson in 1998. Currently, 31 countries are members.
“Our government believes it is critically important to be engaged in efforts to teach future generations the lessons of the Holocaust and help prevent future acts of genocide,” Kenney stated. “The Holocaust stands alone in the annals of human evil and has important lessons to teach all of us – universal lessons that must not be forgotten.”
Former Toronto Liberal MP Mario Silva, who is the new IHRA chair, was also present in Berlin.
Specifically, Silva said Canada will work to implement a multi-year plan that includes research into Holocaust killing sites outside of major death camps, the development of educational resources for teachers, and strengthening relationships with international partners.
Many related activities will also take place in Canada, among them the launch of a national project to preserve survivors’ testimonies, a teachers’ award for excellence in Holocaust education, and poster contest for students.
An IHRA conference will be held in Toronto in October.