Max Stern, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, established himself as a successful art dealer in Montreal and went on to revolutionize the Canadian art world. He never spoke of his experiences as a refugee, or mentioned that he and his father had been prominent art dealers in prewar Düsseldorf. Nor did he make public the fact that the Nazis looted his father’s collection. Now, twenty years after his death, researchers are trying to track down 200 paintings the Nazis forced him to sell in 1937, and to return other looted works to their rightful owners as well. A typical story:
The project’s first big break came in January 2005, when the Art Loss Register (ALR) contacted [Clarence] Epstein [the overseer of Stern’s cultural property] about a 19th-century work by Franz Xaver Winterhalter called Girl from the Sabine Mountains. Off the art market for 68 years, the painting of a peasant woman resting languidly by a tree had been consigned to Estates Unlimited, a small Rhode Island auction house, by Maria-Louise Bissonnette, an octogenarian German baroness who lived in Providence. On behalf of the Stern estate, the ALR’s historic-claims department requested the auction house withdraw the painting from the sale, and the Holocaust Claims Processing Office sent Bissonnette a letter asking her to return it to the Stern estate.
The baroness refused, claiming she had inherited the work from her mother, whose second husband, Karl Wilharm, purchased it at the 1937 Lempertz sale. Disputing—or ignoring—the fact that her stepfather was a high-ranking member of Hitler’s storm troopers, she offered his bill of sale as evidence that the work was hers. “Why should I give the painting back,” she asked, “when there is no proof that it was a forced sale?”