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By Karen Herland
The concerted efforts of several people at Concordia have led to a landmark ruling in the United States that has “opened the doors for everybody dealing with Nazi restitution,” according to Clarence Epstein, of the President’s Office, who leads the Max Stern Art Restitution Project.
Just before the new year, Chief District Judge Mary Lisi ruled in favour of the Stern estate’s claim to Girl From the Sabine Mountains, a canvas valued at around $100,000, painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.
“After a three-year roller-coaster ride of discussions and litigation, the painting is finally back in the hands of Stern’s heirs,” said Epstein. “We can now integrate this legal victory into the moral position that we have been taking on this major university initiative.”
Judge Lisi wrote “Over 70 years ago, the Nazi party took art from Jewish citizens as part of a systematic plan to rob Jewish citizens of their property, their identity and, ultimately, their lives.” Her ruling expands the definition of works that should be considered as looted art in restitution claims.
“A major country in the world has recognized through this decision that things that weren’t literally ripped off the walls by Nazis were still stolen,” said Catherine MacKenzie (Art History). She has developed courses at both the graduate and undergraduate level that address the question of looted cultural property.
In the fall of 2006, MacKenzie worked with a team of students to mount an exhibition called Auktion 392: Reclaiming the Galerie Stern, Düsseldorf. The show illustrated the forced sale of Stern’s last 220 canvases by Lempertz Auction House in 1937.
The 2006 opening of the exhibit was marked by the unexpected restitution of Aimée, A Young Egyptian, a painting sold at Lempertz. Since that time, three other canvases have been reclaimed successfully by the Stern estate. The estate’s representatives have knowledge of the whereabouts of some 20 to 30 other paintings that were lost between 1935 and 1937.
“The show has become intertwined with the progress of the project,” said Epstein. He added that although the show focused on the demise of the Galerie Stern, it has, as it continues to tour, acted as a catalyst for the restitution of works at an unanticipated rate.
MacKenzie added, “The exhibition has nothing to do directly with the return of the Winterhalter — credit must go to the estate’s team for having had the determination to see an important case through.”
Willi Korte, a lawyer and expert in the field of art works looted during World War II, has been working with Concordia. “The U.S. is a major art market. This ruling gives the Stern Project a huge boost in terms of its credibility and the respect it can claim.”
Korte said that it was not until the early 1940s that direct seizure was employed in occupied territories. “Between 1933 and 1939 forced sales are how the great majority of owners lost their property. Stern is a classic example.”
Auktion 392 is touring Europe and will be in Israel this spring. MacKenzie would like to get the show into a German gallery. “Many of those canvases are still on the walls of the families there who purchased them.”
Girl from the Sabine Mountains was bought by Karl Wilharm at the 1937 sale and eventually was given to his stepdaughter, Maria-Louise Bissonnette, of Rhode Island. It was when she attempted to sell the work in 2004 that the painting was identified as part of Stern’s collection.
The Stern estate began discussions with Bissonnette at that time, but initiated legal proceedings in spring 2005 when it was discovered that she was attempting to send the painting to Germany without resolving the issue of ownership.
Lisi ruled that Wilharm never rightly held ownership of the work, since “it is clear that Dr. Stern’s relinquishment of his property was anything but voluntary.”
Korte said, “This has always been our view, but now we can refer to a federal court and a federal ruling that confirms our conclusions.”
Lisi did not attribute any malice to Bissonnette for her possession of the work, but underscored that it was never her stepfather’s to give. As such, the painting reverts to the Stern beneficiaries: both Concordia and McGill University in Montreal and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
MacKenzie stressed the importance of the precedent this ruling sets. “We should all take pride in being associated with something that advances the cause of restitution.”
MacKenzie would ultimately like Concordia to play a larger academic role in the field of looted cultural property. “I would like to help set up a research initiative with the network of contacts, [some of the leading actors in the field] that the university has already developed in this area.”