On the hunt for stolen art treasures

Clarence Epstein, BA ’90, heads up the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, a three-university effort that's tracking down the paintings that were forced out of the hands of a prominent art dealer by the Nazis decades ago.

by Jake Brennan, BA'97

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts recently hung a painting that tells two very different stories. On the surface, the beautiful Allegory of Earth and Water by Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-78) depicts two of the four ancient elements, each personified by a robed woman surrounded by a rich supporting cast exemplifying her realm. But if you dig into the history of this painting as an object – its origin, ownership and travels – you get a complex story with an even more manifold cast: a fascist regime, art collectors in four countries, national government agencies, and a crack team of 21st-century art sleuths. This is the story we’re interested in.

It begins in Nazi Germany. In 1937, Max Stern (1904-87), a Jewish art dealer, was forced by the Gestapo to sell all his Old Master and 19th- and 20th-century German paintings, the valuable holdings of his influential Düsseldorf Galerie Stern. Reading the writing on his now bare walls, he fled to England, where, once war broke out, he was persecuted for being German. After nearly two years in refugee camps, he settled in Montreal in 1941, where he worked at and then owned the successful Dominion Gallery on Sherbrooke Street.

After the war, Stern began seeking restitution of the several hundred paintings the Nazis had forced him to sell. When he died in 1987, McGill, Concordia and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem inherited, along with much of his estate, the right to pursue the lost works, a task directed by Clarence Epstein, BA ’90, director of special projects and cultural affairs at Concordia.

Clarence Epstein, head of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, with one of the works that has been recovered so far (Courtesy Concordia University)

In total around the world, estimates Epstein, there are hundreds of thousands of lost or stolen artworks. Since its beginnings in 2002, the Max Stern Art Restitution Project has recovered eight, “but more will surely follow,” he says. “Many of these paintings have either paper, picture, catalog or archival trails, and not one of these trails is the same,” he explains. The project’s part-time researchers, archivists and administrators pursue these trails, spreading their dragnet from their offices in New York, Washington, Ottawa and Montreal.

But an artwork can also turn up at auction or in a museum catalog, and through these venues a work can only be flagged, of course, if its checkered ownership history is widely known. That’s where the Art Loss Register comes in. Owners file their missing or stolen works with the register, which runs scans on entire museum and auction catalogs from around the world against its database, checking for matches. A match can be made by visual scan, like a fingerprint, by keyword (artist, title, description), or by measurements of the artwork.

Thanks to help from New York’s Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO), the Brueghel turned up in the Netherlands’ Origins Unknown Agency database. After passing from Jan Dik Jr., a Dutch art dealer who acted as a middleman for the Nazis, it went to the Hamburg Kunsthalle museum, was recovered by the Allies after the war, and was most recently on display at the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, Netherlands.

The Art Loss Register and HCPO have seen a huge growth in claims since the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust-era assets, which set out the general restitution principles widely followed today. Soon after, lawyers became involved, and “once you have lawyers interested in an issue, it opens new opportunities for pursuit,” Epstein points out. Art auction houses now have dedicated staffs working on restitution. Museums second or hire out researchers to vet their own collections. University academics have taken great interest. And, importantly, governments have become involved.

A watershed moment for the Stern Project was the 2008 restitution of the prized Girl from the Sabine Mountains by Franz Xavier Winterhalter (1805-73). U.S. federal court judge Bruce Selya found that Auktion 392, a major forced sale of many of Stern’s paintings, including the Winterhalter, was illegal. Therefore, any painting sold at Auktion 392 and now on U.S. soil should be considered stolen property. Wrote Selya: “The mills of justice grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.”

The judgment, says Epstein, “is huge. Now we have the backing of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, which enforces that judgment and is in close correspondence with Interpol about the movement of these works.” The Stern Project’s small, part-time team suddenly got a whole lot bigger.

Not everyone is keen to cooperate with the project’s work, though. Recent newspaper stories have recounted how the Lempertz Auction House in Germany has resisted requests to suspend the sale of Fish still life, shellfish, perch, pike, oyster and cat, a painting by Alexander Adriaenssen (1587-1661), which is suspected of being one of the works that Stern was forced to sell.

Allegory of Earth and Water by Jan Brueghel the Younger

At this point, laws on art restitution are still country specific. Which brings us back to the Brueghel, the first painting the Stern Project has retrieved from a European government. That’s a potentially important precedent, as the majority of the lost paintings are probably still on that continent.

And with time on their side, they hope eventually to recover most of the paintings that Stern was forced to part with, says Epstein. “As three universities, we’re perpetual plaintiffs: we’re not going to die, and we’re not going to forget. It’s on the record – we are now committed to pursuing this issue.”

As paintings are recovered, they may be sold, loaned for display, like the Brueghel, or continue their travels. “Auktion 392: Reclaiming the Galerie Stern, Düsseldorf” is an exhibition currently showing in Miami Beach, its seventh city on three continents. For the universities, the Stern Project’s educational aspect is as important as the moral and financial. The exhibition contains information on the Stern family, the forced sale, and the Stern Project’s timeline over the past decade. The Brueghel may be part of a future such exhibition.

“What we take great pride in as three universities is that we’ve publicized our successes and challenges all the way through, so that other claimants can see how to get this done and won’t be dissuaded from trying to pursue their rights as well,” says Epstein.

But the Allegory of Earth and Water marks a clear triumph for the Stern Project. And so ends the story that, when painting it, Brueghel could never have foreseen.