Two paintings belonging to the late Montreal art dealer Max Stern that were stolen by the Nazis just before the start of the Second World War were returned yesterday to his estate at a ceremony in Berlin.
One of the paintings - Flight from Egypt, attributed to the circle of 16th-century Dutch master Jan Wellens de Cock and formerly in the collection of German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer - was unveiled at the event. The second, Girl from the Sabine Mountains by the 19th-century German court painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter, was not shown.
However, the estate confirmed the Winterhalter was in its possession after the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, in a landmark decision last month, ordered its previous owner, Baroness Maria-Louise Bissonnette of Rhode Island, to return it to Mr. Stern's trustees. It's expected both paintings will be lent to Canadian art galleries for exhibition.
Yesterday's restitution is the latest victory in a continuing attempt by the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, started in 2002 at Montreal's Concordia University, to locate and claim more than 400 artworks that once belonged to Mr. Stern or his family. In a little more than two years, five of those artworks have been successfully reclaimed by the estate, two of which are now on loan to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Another 30 or 40 Stern paintings have been located in public and private galleries, mostly in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the United States, and negotiations are under way to have some of them returned.
Mr. Stern, who died in Montreal in 1987, came to Canada in 1941. Six years later, he became the owner of the Dominion Gallery in Montreal. He'd been forced to flee his native Germany in late 1937, shortly after the Nazis coerced him into selling more than 220 artworks from his Dusseldorf dealership to a Nazi-approved auctioneer in Cologne. Other works were forcibly consigned or confiscated in the following three or four years.
Mr. Stern left a large amount of his estate to Concordia University, and in 2000 the university oversaw the sale of the Dominion Gallery and the dispersal of its inventory of 5,000 artworks.
The Stern restitution served as a preface to a two-day symposium beginning today in Berlin called Taking Responsibility: Nazi-looted Art -- A Challenge for Libraries, Archives and Museums. Clarence Epstein, director of the Montreal restitution project, said the location and timing of yesterday's announcement was entirely intentional.
"One of the challenges we have is that, unlike the United States, which recognizes a forced sale as being equivalent to a theft, here in Germany and in other countries, they haven't yet developed an art law position that is as clear as the Americans," Dr. Epstein said.