Return of looted art
“Young Man as Bacchus” by Jan Franse Verzijl was among about 400 works owned by Max Stern that were forcibly sold by the Nazis in the 1930s. (photo from Max and Iris Stern Foundation)
When the painting “Young Man as Bacchus” by Dutch master Jan Franse Verzijl (1599-1647) went on display in New York City two years ago, the FBI moved in and seized the work. In the possession of an art gallery in Turin, Italy, the painting was among about 400 works owned by Max Stern that were forcibly sold by the Nazis in the 1930s.
In 1935, Stern was a successful gallery owner in Düsseldorf, Germany, but because he was Jewish, his collections were confiscated and sold by the Nazis. Stern would later move to Montreal, where he became a leading figure in the Canadian art world. After Stern died, in 1987, the beneficiaries of his estate learned of Stern’s Düsseldorf gallery and an extraordinary project began to seek restitution for the confiscated artworks.
Dr. Clarence Epstein, director of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project and senior director of urban and cultural affairs for Concordia University, will speak in Vancouver March 23 about the successes and challenges of the project.
The beneficiaries of Stern’s will are Concordia University, McGill University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As a result, the art restitution project may be the only program of its type with three academic institutions working collegially to a common goal, said Epstein. His visit here is presented by the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and Congregation Schara Tzedeck and is sponsored by Heffel Gallery and the estate of Frank and Rosie Nelson.
The Dominion Gallery, Stern’s Montreal business, remained in operation for more than a decade after his death. During this time, the beneficiary universities became aware of Stern’s prewar history.
“There was an entirely additional gallery business in Düsseldorf that his family had run before the war but had been closed by force as a result of Nazi persecution,” Epstein told the Independent in a telephone interview. “It wasn’t public knowledge. I think some people were aware of Dr. Stern’s past, but it coincided with the time when the issue of restitution was just starting to gain a little bit of traction in the art world and so it merited questioning. We just didn’t know how far to take it.”
The Max Stern Art Restitution Project has become a significant entity, with staff in Montreal, Ottawa, Washington and New York, as well as researchers in Europe. In addition to the obligation Epstein has to maximize the financial outcome for the beneficiaries of Stern’s will, there are other factors driving the project.
“There were fiduciary obligations, which is part of estate management,” he said. “There were moral implications, because this was something that was right for the universities to do on behalf of their great benefactor Max Stern. And then there were educational opportunities that this could open up in the fields of art history, of social justice, of art and law, the mechanics of the art market – and this enticed all kinds of academics to get involved in the project.”
The return of “Young Man as Bacchus” is among 16 successes the project has seen so far. While the restitution of that piece involved law enforcement, it also exemplified the good faith response of the gallery into whose possession the painting had fallen.
Every country has different rules and statutes of limitations around the return of art that has been stolen or forcibly sold, and the Stern project navigates the law as well as less litigious means of restitution. Through the recommendation of the German Friends of Hebrew University, the German government recently announced tax receipts for the owners of returned artworks. In the cases of galleries or museums, the reputation of the institution could suffer if they are known to be in possession of a work of dubious provenance, so this encourages cooperation. Individual collectors may not have the same impetus for preserving a reputation, but once a piece of art is identified as coming from Stern’s Düsseldorf collection, it bears a figurative black mark that makes it valueless on the open art market. Even so, Epstein said, the project does not seek to punish anyone for unwittingly possessing such a work.
“We don’t intend to be the bearers of bad news about the state of the work that is in their possession,” he said, “so if there’s any way that we could alleviate that kind of misfortune with some kind of tax relief, we would do so. But it hasn’t been tested yet.”
One example of an innovative solution found is the case of a work that was discovered in a Düsseldorf gallery. While the ownership was transferred to the Max and Iris Stern Trust, the universities agreed to lend it back to the gallery for long-term display.
“In their case, everybody kind of got their cake and ate it, too,” said Epstein. “It is owned by the Stern Foundation but it is lent to the Düsseldorf Museum.”
While Canada does not have the sort of art sector that New York or the capitals of Europe have, Epstein credited the federal government, specifically Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly, for expressing the Canadian government’s commitment to restitution.
What happens to the artworks when they are returned varies. In the Düsseldorf case, the gallery in possession maintained custody. In some instances, the pieces have been sold to fund additional work of the project. (Once returned, the black mark is eliminated and the piece can be exchanged in the legitimate art market.) Others are loaned to museums and public institutions.
Next year, an exhibition of works from Stern’s collections will open in Düsseldorf, later traveling to Haifa, Israel, then Montreal.
Popular culture has taken on the topic of art restitution, Epstein said, and this is a good thing. For example, Monuments Men is about Allied soldiers charged with rescuing cultural artifacts before the Nazis destroyed or hid them, and Woman in Gold focuses on an American woman’s legal fight with the government of Austria to return a painting by Gustav Klimt that was stolen from her family by the Nazis. There have also been documentaries on different aspects of pillaging during the war. Epstein credited Helen Mirren, the star of Woman in Gold, for personally taking up the cause of restitution and making it more public.
“Any way we can make more public the challenges of the recovery of these kinds of objects, and the more we keep it in the spotlight, the more I think we’re going to be able to generate sympathy and attention from the groups that are in possession of those works,” he said.
While the Stern project has seen the return of 16 works and has located several more that are the subject of negotiation, it is impossible to know precisely how many cultural artifacts were stolen and remain unidentified.
“There is a number circulating on the internet in the hundreds of thousands in terms of objects that remain unrecovered,” said Epstein. “I don’t think it’s ever going to be possible to nail down that number … because we are talking about an historic loss that is multiplied over millions of people’s losses, that is also somewhat effaced as a result of time and lack of memory and archives. But that’s really the tip of the iceberg in terms of losses because in terms of material losses, everything that was in the possession of a Jewish family that was oppressed could still be in circulation now – musical instruments, jewelry, the list goes on. But those items were a lot harder to trace in terms of ownership and attribution than a painting has been. Works of art that are under a certain value and have not been researched historically are probably still circulating in the tens of thousands.”
Epstein added that Stern also had significant B.C. connections. His gallery represented E.J. Hughes and Emily Carr, two of this province’s most noted artists.
Admission to the March 23, 7:30 p.m., talk at Schara Tzedeck is free but an RSVP is requested to [email protected].
Pat Johnson is a communications and development consultant to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.