The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) handed over a Nazi-looted painting to the heirs of Max Stern, the late German-Jewish Montreal art dealer, in a ceremony at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage on Feb. 8.
Joined by officials of the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI returned the Dutch Old Master it had recovered, Young Man as Bacchus by Jan Franse Verzijl (1599-1647), to representatives of the Max and Iris Stern Foundation and its three university beneficiaries: Concordia University, McGill University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
It is the 16th painting to be returned to the beneficiaries since Concordia’s Max Stern Art Restitution Project was launched 15 years ago.
In May 2015, almost 80 years after the painting’s forced sale, the Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) of the New York State Department of Financial Services, acting on behalf of the Stern Foundation, received an anonymous tip from someone in the art trade that the Verzijl was on display at the Spring Masters Fair in New York City, consigned by the Galleria Luigi Caretto in Turin, Italy.
Stern (1904-1987) owned an important art gallery in Düsseldorf before World War II. After the Nazis came to power, he was expelled from the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts in 1935 because he was Jewish.
The inventory of Galerie Stern and his personal collection were sold under duress, with the remainder consigned to auction in Cologne two years later.
According to information released by Concordia, the HCPO contacted the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York and informed it of the painting’s history and location. The office in turn reached out to the FBI.
“The FBI then swiftly acted to seize the painting at the fair and begin negotiations with the gallery. The Luigi Caretto gallery voluntarily waived its claim to ownership of the painting to allow its return to the Max and Iris Stern Foundation.”
FBI special agent in charge Michael McGarrity said, “Works of art hold a special place in our society. Likewise, facilitating the return of stolen and missing works of art to their rightful owners is held in high regard among art crime investigators at the FBI.”
Clarence Epstein, senior director of urban and cultural affairs at Concordia, said, “Over the last 15 years, the assistance of law enforcement agencies in the United States, Canada and Germany has been invaluable to the advancement of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project. Recognizing that forced sales of Nazi-era cultural property are equivalent to acts of theft remains the project’s guiding principle.”
This latest restitution was made possible by the groundbreaking 2007 U.S. federal court decision in the case concerning Franz-Xaver Winterhalter’s Girl from the Sabine Mountains, which Stern was forced to sell at the 1937 Cologne auction. The foundation went to court when the person, a U.S. resident who possessed the work, refused to give it up.
The judgment “unequivocally declared as stolen property all of those paintings that Stern had to liquidate,” Epstein said.
In the years following this ruling, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, was able to assist the Stern Foundation in the recovery of a Dutch and an Italian Old Master painting in the hands of members of the art trade.