Art law News Canada

Stuttgart museum returns looted medieval masterpiece

Jewish art dealer who fled to Canada was forced to sell art during Nazi Era

Virgin and Child, by the Master of Flémalle (1375-1444)

The Staatsgalerie Stuttgart has returned Virgin and Child, a 15th-century painting attributed to the Master of Flémalle (1375-1444), to the estate of Max Stern, a German-born Jewish dealer who fled the Nazis and later operated the Dominion Gallery in Montreal. The restitution ceremony took place in Berlin at the Canadian Embassy.

The return of Virgin and Child marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of Galerie Julius Stern in Düsseldorf and the tenth anniversary of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project at Concordia University in Montreal, which estimates that at least 400 works that once belonged to Stern are still unrecovered. In 1935, Stern (1904-87) was banned from working as an art dealer, the profession practiced by his family in Düsseldorf. After Stern closed the business, 228 works from the gallery were auctioned at Mathias Lempertz in Cologne in 1937. Works from his and his mother’s personal collections, left on consignment, were mostly seized. Virgin and Child was sold with other works after Stern had fled to London, to raise 25,000 Reichsmarks to buy a passport for his mother to leave Germany.

Although no bill of that sale survives, the painting came into the hands of the Frankfurt art dealer Alexander Haas, who sold it to a Dr Scheufelen in 1939. Scheufelen sold eight paintings to the planned Führermuseum in Linz in 1943, at least one of which came from Haas. In 1948, 125 works from Scheufelen’s collection were exhibited at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart; 118 of those, including Virgin and Child, were willed to the museum.

Tracing the picture’s provenance was complicated by the destruction of Stern’s business records when his London flat was bombed during the Blitz. Three universities are beneficiaries of Stern’s estate—Concordia, McGill University (Montreal), and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) of the New York State Department of Financial Services has supported the claim by researching the painting’s history and corresponding with the Staatsgalerie.

Before it is shipped to Canada, the painting will be studied by experts; researchers do not rule out a reattribution. No plans for exhibition or sale have been announced. “We’re emphasising the fact that a very significant German museum is returning this to the Stern estate. We know that a few other paintings from Stern are in German museums,” said Willi Korte, a researcher who works with the Stern estate.

Canada has just assumed the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which could result in increased funding and more staff for Nazi Era provenance research in Canadian museum collections.

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