An exhibition commemorating Jewish art dealer Max Stern has been abruptly cancelled by his native town of Duesseldorf, Germany, to the astonishment of the Montreal-based project that seeks to locate the hundreds of works the Nazis forced him to sell off.
Clarence Epstein, director of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, which is based at Concordia University, said, “We are hard-pressed to understand the justification for this decision. It makes no sense. I believe there is more to this story.”
The exhibit, titled Max Stern: From Duesseldorf to Montreal, has been under development for three years and was supposed to open in a city-owned museum in Duesseldorf in February. It planned to tour to the Haifa Museum of Art in Israel late next summer and then to Montreal’s McCord Museum in 2019.
Last week, the municipality of Duesseldorf announced that the exhibition at the Stadtmuseum would not be going ahead – stunning its partners in Montreal and Israel, as well as the small Duesseldorf Jewish community. Epstein said the Montreal Jewish community had contributed significant funds to the exhibition, and the Stern project has provided the assistance of its experts.
City officials cited “current demands for information and restitution in German museums in connection with the Galerie Max Stern,” as their reason for abandoning the project.
The exhibition, which was created by the museum itself, was to have been dedicated to the life and work of Stern, who died in 1987. He’s best known as the owner of the landmark Dominion Gallery on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal and for his seminal role in the development of Canada’s art trade.
Epstein said current restitution claims were not going to be addressed in the exhibition. The partners tried to dissuade the municipal council, to no avail, he said.
The Stern family had a long history in Duesseldorf and were prominent members of the community before the war. That all changed during the Nazi period, a fact that the exhibition hoped it could finally rectify.
“It’s astounding, especially given the symbolism of this year, the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Washington principles on justice for Nazi-confiscated art by 44 countries, including Germany,” Epstein added.
Galerie Julius Stern was founded in that city in 1913 by Max Stern’s father and inherited by Stern the younger in 1934. The following year, the regime forced him out of the art dealing business and liquidated his inventory. In late 1937, his final 228 paintings were auctioned off in Cologne at well below market value, and Stern left for Paris and then headed to London.
The Stern project was created in 2002 and is administered by Concordia, which, along with McGill University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, were the beneficiaries of the bulk of Stern’s estate. Since then, 15 paintings of the approximately 400 that are being sought have been recovered. Before his death, Stern himself only recovered five works.
The project also aims to raise awareness of the ongoing search for justice for the victims of Nazi spoliation.
The exhibition would have included some of those recovered works, as well as loans from museums around the world and archives from the National Gallery of Canada, Epstein said.
An international symposium on Stern’s legacy will be held next fall, instead of the exhibition, municipal authorities said.
“To say that we are disappointed is an understatement,” said Kathy Assayag, executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal, which was a major sponsor. “A symposium cannot replace a travelling exhibition that would have reached a very broad audience.”
Epstein said the museum’s administrators are also devastated. He was told that the Stern exhibition was one of the most ambitious projects the museum had ever undertaken.
“We, as the Jewish community of Duesseldorf, are very surprised by the decision of the city. We were not asked ahead about our opinion and were informed only a week after,” wrote Oded Horowitz, a Jewish community leader in the city, in an email to The CJN.
“At the moment, we are in contact with the city and will have meeting with them next week in the hope to understand the reasons. The mayor didn’t promise anything but he is willing to talk, so let us see what those talks will bring.”
‘To say that we are disappointed is an understatement.’
In July, another Duesseldorf institution, the Kunstpalast Museum, withdrew a painting it was exhibiting, after a claim was filed by the Stern estate. The possessor, a private collector, is resisting, saying he acquired the 19th-century Sicilian Landscape by Andreas Achenbach at a 1999 Phillips auction in London.
The Stern project filed a claim on the work in September 2016 and listed it as missing with Interpol, as well as on the German database lostart.de. The lawyer for Wolfgang Peiffer, a major Achenbach collector, has demanded proof from the estate that Stern did not sell it in a normal transaction.
Epstein said that, in the previous year alone, three paintings in the hands of private collectors in Duesseldorf, Heidelberg and Hamburg were returned to the estate, and the project’s research indicates that a large proportion of the Stern art remains in Germany.