The astonishing billion-dollar cache of Nazi looted art treasures made public last week in Germany underscores the stark contrasts among European countries and their policies on Second World War-era restitution.
Certain countries, such as the Netherlands, have proactively sought to restore works to their rightful owners. Others, including Germany itself, have opted to download the issue to provincial and municipal governments, which lack the resources to properly address the issue. Whereas the Netherlands formed a national committee in 2001 to review, revise and facilitate the treatment of restitution claims, Germany has yet to implement a national policy on the matter. So, while it’s upsetting that German authorities sat on the Gurlitt cache for nearly two years, it’s also not surprising.
The Max Stern Art Restitution Project has witnessed these inconsistencies first-hand. Based at Concordia University in Montreal and led by Dr. Clarence Epstein, the project has been at the forefront of influencing the course of restitution policies internationally. Since 2002, through a combination of diligent sleuthing and hard-fought legal battles, the team has recovered 11 of Stern’s lost works, including Jan Brueghel the Younger’s Allegory of Earth and Water from the Netherlands and just last spring, Virgin and Child by the Master of Fémalle from Germany.
The Netherlands’ crisis of conscience regarding restitution came 15 years ago, when Marei von Saher – daughter-in-law of Jacques Goudstikker, one of the country’s most renowned art dealers – persisted in her claim that 200 works in the national collection, some hanging in national museums, belonged to her family. The government took a close look and decided that its laws on restitution were outdated and in need of revision, and where ambiguity arose, to err in favour of the claimants. In 2006, the 200 works, mostly old masters, were returned to the Goudstikker heirs.
The committee also upheld the claim of the Stern estate with respect to Allegory of Earth and Water. The restitution of the Brueghel painting was the first time a European government (as opposed to a gallery or private citizen) had returned a painting to Dr. Stern’s university heirs. At the 2010 restitution ceremony in The Hague, a conversation with the deputy minister of culture revealed that, although she felt the Netherlands was the leading European Union country with respect to proactively addressing restitution, action was long overdue.
Just last spring, the Stern estate recovered its first work from a German institution: Virgin and Child from the Staatgalerie Stuttgart. Germany is a signatory to the 1998 Washington Principles, which established the framework to return looted Nazi art, but because Germany has not adopted a formal, national approach to restitution, claims are complicated and lengthy and require the claimant to build an iron-clad case. While the Dutch have been at the vanguard of European restitution policies, the Germans believe that burden of proof should rest with claimants.
In the case of the Stuttgart painting, Virgin and Child, there was some uncertainty surrounding its provenance. While conducting research for U.S. Homeland Security on another painting, the Stern research team uncovered records that linked Stern to the painting. Initial reports had suggested that the painting was not owned by Dr. Stern, merely consigned to him for sale by a client. It was only later, almost accidentally, that the researchers learned the painting was returned to Dr. Stern after its sale, because the purchaser was unhappy with the work and had questions about its attribution. As a result, Dr. Stern offered one of his own paintings as an exchange and became the work’s owner.
Dr. Stern subsequently was forced to sell the piece to finance the purchase of an exit visa for his mother, Selma. The work was sold for 500 marks to a local dealer who was conducting a lucrative business liquidating the collections of Jews. Shortly thereafter, the dealer sold the work to a German industrialist for 48,000 marks. The industrialist ultimately donated the piece to the Stuttgart museum in exchange for forgiveness of certain estate tax obligations. It took four years of diligent research and lengthy negotiations between the Stern estate and the museum to secure the painting’s return.
Art restitution requires patience, financial resources, professional research and a commitment to seeking justice. It involves piecing together stories across multiple generations, stories that involve a cast of evil and heroic characters worthy of Shakespearean dramas. And it requires a national conscience that has the courage and commits the resources to tackle restitution claims expediently and fairly.
Susan McArthur is managing partner at Greensoil Global Investments and a guest host on BNN. Andrea Wood is vice-president of legal services at Telus. They co-founded JJem Productions, which is developing a film on the Max Stern story.