Max Stern art restitution under way

christine mota

Allegory of Earth and Fire, an oil painting by the Dutch master Jan Brueghel (1568-1625), is one of the works that is being pursued as part of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project.

At a symposium on March 24 at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Concordia’s Clarence Epstein will announce key findings in the effort to trace and restore works of art lost during the Nazi regime.

A cultural property specialist in charge of special projects in the Office of the President, Epstein has been acting on behalf of the executors and beneficiaries of the estate of prominent Montreal art dealer and collector Max Stern.

Concordia, McGill and Hebrew University of Jerusalem are beneficiaries of the Stern estate. A year ago, Concordia publicly committed to seeking restitution of the art holdings that were either confiscated from Stern by the Nazis or sold by force in the 1930s.

Epstein, who is heading the restitution project, said the executors of the estate intend to use the extent of their resources to pursue the restitution of the missing property. “Since Dr. Stern’s death in 1987, the executors of his estate have distributed hundreds of works of art and tens of millions of dollars to universities and museums worldwide,“ he said.

Epstein will make his announcement at the inaugural Max and Iris Stern International Symposium, whose theme, Arts of Memory, will focus on ideological movements in Germany during the twentieth century.

In collaboration with the New York State Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO), the Art Loss Register in London and the National Gallery of Canada Archives, Epstein can confirm that more than 40 works of art in public and private hands have been identified as exact matches from a group of more than 400 belonging to Stern.

Discovered in this initial search are important works by European masters such as Jan Brueghel, Lodovico Carracci, Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Emile-Vernet Lecomte and Max Liebermann. While discussions with Christie’s, Sotheby’s and many of the current possessors of these works is moving forward, the estate are about to start legal proceedings regarding one painting located in Rhode Island.

Many of these 40 works have been offered on the market in the last two decades by the same 15 auction houses, most of them located in Germany. Over the next few weeks, the HCPO will request their assistance in making contact with the last known possessors of these paintings.

A list of all Stern works in question will also be circulated to select members of the art trade and museums across Germany.

Next fall, the university will launch a travelling exhibition and publication on the infamous 1937 forced sale of Stern paintings at Lempertz auction house in Cologne, and will participate in an international lecture series on issues surrounding Nazi looting, forced liquidation and stolen art organized with the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.