Nazi victim's art holdings unveiled at Montreal museum

The Girl from the Sabine Mountains has finally arrived in Montreal, the adopted home of its rightful owner. An exhibit that opened at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on Tuesday shows seven paintings recovered by the Max Stern Art Restitution Project.
The Girl from the Sabine Mountains, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873) is an oil on canvas that was restituted in January 2008. ((Max Stern Art Restitution Project))
The Girl from the Sabine Mountains has finally arrived in Montreal, the adopted home of its rightful owner.

An exhibit that opened at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on Tuesday shows seven paintings recovered by the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, which is attempting to recover works once owned by Montreal art dealer Max Stern.

Stern, a German Jew who fled Germany in 1937, lost more than 200 European masterpieces confiscated or sold by force by the Nazis before the Second World War.  

The Girl from the Sabine Mountains was a hard-won triumph for the Max Stern Art Restitution Project.

"We've been chasing this lady for many years....," said project head Clarence Epstein, referring to the painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, a 19th-century artist famous for painting Queen Victoria.

The painting turned up in Rhode Island, in the collection of Maria-Luise Bissonnette, a German baroness who had inherited it from her father.

She refused to return it, arguing Stern had sold it.

Shipped back to Germany

"She decided to remove the canvas from the frame and send the painting off, rather surreptitiously, back to Germany in the hopes of evading the justice system of the United States," Epstein said.

But a U.S. judge ordered the baroness to return the painting to the Stern estate, which was willed to a group of universities.

The Winterhalter's return sets a precedent that could force more people holding art looted by the Nazis to give it back, according to Thomas R. Kline, the lawyer from Andrews Kurth LLP who fought the case for the Stern estate.

"The Winterhalter case is the first one where a U.S. court determined that a forced sale can be the equivalent of a theft, or an official confiscation, and therefore a theft," he told CBC News.

Other paintings on display at the Montreal museum:

  • Aimée, a Young Egyptian, by Emile C.H. Vernet-Lecomte (1821-1874).
  • Portrait of Jan van Eversdyck, by Nicolas Neufchatel (1527-1590).
  • Extensive landscape with travellers on a track near a walled town with a castle and a church, a village beyond, by Jan de Vos I (1593-1649).
  • Flight into Egypt,Circle of Jan Wellens de Cock (c. 1480-1527).
  • Portrait of a Musician Playing a Bagpipe, 1632, Northern Netherlandish School.
  • St. Jerome, by Lodovico Carracci (1555-1619).

Stern lost his family's Duesseldorf art gallery when the Nazis forced it to close in 1937.

Holdings were auctioned

Portrait of a Musician Playing a Bagpipe, by an unknown artist of Northern Netherlandish School. The 1632 oil on wood was restituted in April 2009. ((Max Stern Art Restitution Project))
"Max Stern was simply told he could not run a gallery anymore. In the end, of course, that was because he was Jewish," said Willi Korte, chief investigator for the Stern Project.

Stern's holdings were auctioned off in the fall of 1937. He fled to Britain, eventually immigrating to Canada where he became a successful art dealer in Montreal.

Now his estate faces the challenge of locating the rest of his collection, nearly 200 paintings.

"To recuperate them and then bring them back together in the 21st century is unique and will form a corpus of Dutch and Flemish art works that we haven't seen in our day," Epstein said.

The legal case involving  The Girl from the Sabine Mountains prompted New York art dealer Richard Feigen to take a closer look at his own holdings.

Feigen discovered he owned one of the paintings Stern had been forced to give up, St. Jerome by Carracci.

"I realized I had to give it back. It didn't belong to me and the auction house should not have recycled it," he said, adding that he bought the painting from the same auction house in Lempertz that liquidated Stern's original gallery.

He is $56,000 US out of pocket on the deal, having bought the painting in good faith, but says he plans to sue the auction house.

"We can't restore six million lives, but at least we can restitute some of the art they collected," Feigen said.

When he died in 1987, Stern left his estate to a foundation that benefits Concordia and McGill universities in Montreal, and Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.

With files from Ann Lang, Nancy Wood, Justin Hayward