MONTREAL — A Nazi-looted painting has been withdrawn from auction in Germany by its consignor and returned to the Canadian and Israeli university heirs of Montreal art dealer Max Stern, a Jewish refugee from Nazism.
At an Oct. 29 news conference held at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin, Concordia University announced the restitution of the valuable 1837 work Scandinavian Landscape by Andreas Achenbach, founder of the German Realist school and considered the father of 19th-century German landscape painting.
Concordia was acting on behalf of the executors of the Stern estate and its three university beneficiaries: Concordia, McGill University and Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
For the past decade, Concordia has headed the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, which locates and makes claims on the hundreds of artworks that the late Stern, a Düsseldorf gallery owner, was forced to sell off in the 1930s. This is the 11th painting the international project has recovered.
Stern, who was deported to Canada during World War II from England where he had been interned as an enemy alien, was the owner for many years of the Dominion Gallery on Sherbrooke Street. He died in 1987.
In the presence of Canadian Ambassador Marie Gervais-Vidricaire and Uwe Hartmann, director of Germany’s Office for Provenance Research, estate representatives unveiled the painting, one of about 200 works liquidated in a 1937 sale by Lempertz Auction House in Cologne, referred to as Auktion 392.
This spring, the Achenbach work was again destined for the auction block in Cologne – this time at Van Ham Fine Art Auctions – when researchers at the Koordinierungsstelle Magdeburg, a government-supported agency that runs the Lost Art Internet Database, identified it as an exact match for a Stern painting listed with Interpol. The Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) of the New York State Department of Financial Services, was instrumental in seeing that the painting was returned to its rightful owners.
The consignor, whose identity is kept confidential, but is presumed to be German, was immediately co-operative, Clarence Epstein, head of the restitution project, told The CJN.
However, two other paintings, which Stern was also forced to sell at Lempertz in 1937, were also found at the same auction house at the same time, and their consignor has refused to listen to the Stern estate’s claim.
“We are grateful to Van Ham and the HCPO for facilitating the return of this painting,” said Concordia president Alan Shepard. “Our close ties with European and American restitution agencies, together with sustained diplomatic efforts, continue to demonstrate that international collaboration is vital to addressing looted art claims.”
Epstein said it is believed that numerous works from the Stern collection are still circulating in the Cologne-Düsseldorf corridor, and their recovery is being hampered by an intransigent art trade and German law.
Once a work is identified as having been despoiled, the auctioneer or dealer is obligated to return it to the consignor, who remains anonymous under the law, thereby absolving both parties from getting involved in any claims negotiations.
“Moreover, in German law, there is no law recognizing looted art as stolen art, as there is, for example, in the United States,” Epstein said.
Publicly funded German museums have developed, on moral grounds, a policy of taking responsibility for looted art found in their possession, but that’s not the case in the commercial art trade, which continues to resist the Stern restitution project’s repeated attempts at collaboration, Epstein said.
In March, a Stuttgart museum returned a painting to the Stern estate.
The recovery of the Achenbach comes on the eve of a Nov. 6-7 conference hosted by Concordia with support from the Canadian government, titled “Plundered Cultures, Stolen Heritage,” which will examine the theft and destruction of cultural artifacts during war from different national perspectives.
The keynote address will be given by Morley Safer, correspondent for CBS’s 60 Minutes.
This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Stern family art business by Max’s father. The Cornell Fine Arts Museum of Rollins College in Florida is currently hosting the exhibition Auktion 392: Reclaiming the Galerie Stern, Düsseldorf, created by Concordia a few years ago.