The Max Stern Art Restitution Project, headed by Concordia University in Montreal, illustrates the numerous obstacles faced in reclaiming looted art.
Of the roughly 400 works of art once owned by Max Stern, a Jewish-German gallery owner, only 12 have been recovered. The project knows the whereabouts of only about 10 per cent of Stern’s collection, some of which was sold in a forced auction in 1937, and it has ongoing claims for about 10 paintings, said Clarence Epstein, director of the project.
Finding the artwork – a considerable amount is believed to still be in Germany – proving the case that it was owned by Stern or his family and then convincing the owner to arrive at “a just and fair solution,” is far from easy, Epstein said.
The first problem is “developing a fact-based argument on a subject that’s 80 years old,” he said.
Stern, who fled his home in Dusseldorf shortly after the forced sale of his family’s gallery, was interned in England and Canada. He owned a successful gallery in Montreal and represented Canadian and international artists for years.
Concordia was named the executor of Stern’s estate, and on behalf of three universities including McGill and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has assembled a team of experts to track down the stolen art.
Despite the tumultuous war years, Stern managed to preserve some records of his collection, and the project has uncovered others. But justifying a claim requires a significant amount of time, resources, travel and experience, Epstein said.
Even when a painting has been located and can be verified as having belonged to the Stern family, restitution is by no means assured.
The problem is “how to find a fair and just solution when there are no laws,” Epstein explained.
If the current owner is a public gallery, “it’s certainly a more transparent discussion. An institution cannot disappear underground or ignore a discussion with an institution like the Max Stern project,” Epstein said. But that still doesn’t mean that there will be a resolution.
The resolution does not always mean the painting is returned to Canada. The most recent painting to be restituted, a 19th-century self-portrait by the German painter Wilhelm von Schadow, was allowed to remain in the Dusseldorf City Museum where it had been on display for several decades, for the public to continue viewing it.
If the painting is in the hands of an individual, it can be even more difficult to resolve the problem.
The Stern project, which prefers to use moral suasion and negotiation, has turned to litigation only once, in the case of a painting that had been in the United States but was shipped to Germany to avoid restitution.
A landmark U.S. decision that the forced auction of 1937 did indeed mean that the art was stolen property, enabled the painting to be returned to the Stern estate, but the ruling is not enforceable in other countries.
Nearly 80 years after the forced sale of Stern’s collection, Epstein is noticing a change in attitude, at least among the German public galleries.
“There is a movement in Germany to deal with this issue that permeates and even infects the museum system,” he said. “More and more, there are individuals in countries, particularly in institutions, that understand they have a moral responsibility that in the past wasn’t as obvious.”