Canada under pressure over potential Nazi loot

Montreal museum returns painting amid growing calls to fund provenance research and return disputed works


For ten years, the Max Stern Estate has searched Europe and the US for paintings that belonged to the German-born Jewish art dealer, who fled Germany in 1937 after the Nazis shut his gallery in Düsseldorf and forced him to sell his stock. Now, as Canada leads a committee commemorating Nazi victims, collections in the country could face new scrutiny over potential Nazi-era loot—and a major Canadian museum has just agreed to return a painting that was looted in the 1930s.

Last month, Canada assumed the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which honours the memory of Nazi victims. In a ceremony held at the Canadian embassy in Berlin to announce Canada’s new position, the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart returned a painting once owned by Stern to a minister of the Canadian government.

The return of the work, Virgin and Child, which was attributed to the Master of Flémalle, was arranged by the Max Stern Art Restitution Project. The Stern Estate, which is based in Montreal, benefits the city’s Concordia and McGill Universities and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Stern (1904-87), who ran the Dominion Gallery in Montreal, also donated paintings to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Around 400 works once owned by the dealer have still not been recovered. “We’re working on around 40 paintings,” says Clarence Epstein, the director of the project, which was founded in 2002. Stern’s business records were destroyed when his London office was bombed in a German air attack, but the project, with the co-operation of the Holocaust Claims Processing Office of the New York State Department of Financial Services (a little-known office in a state agency), has tracked down pictures to the US and Germany.

Virgin and Child was in a group of pictures that Stern sold to raise 25,000 Reichsmarks to buy a passport enabling his mother to leave Germany. The work entered the Stuttgart museum in 1948 through an arrangement with Heinrich Scheufelen, a businessman and collector who had sold eight pictures to Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria.

Anja Heuss, a provenance researcher at the Staatsgalerie, says that the picture is no longer thought to be by the Master of Flémalle, but by an anonymous Westphalian artist at the end of the 15th century. She adds that her examination of the Scheufelen collection has raised issues about other works in the museum.

In 2001, delegates convened by the Canadian Museums Association and the Canadian Jewish Congress met at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, to discuss Holocaust plunder held by Canadian institutions. They called for a “national strategy” and recommended provenance research into Nazi-era transactions.

Canada lagging behind

“There was a sense that Canada was lagging behind America,” says Janet Brooke, a former director of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, Ontario—and concerns about the lack of funding for provenance research remain. Moira McCaffrey, the executive director of the Canadian Art Museum Directors’ Organization, hopes that Canada’s chairmanship of the IHRA will lead to greater support, while Lloyd DeWitt, a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, says that it may focus attention on questions of provenance.

“I think that’s the opportunity,” says Marc Masurovsky, who co-founded the Holocaust Art Restitution Project and attended the 2001 conference. “How could they take over the chair of this organisation and not educate themselves about their own problems?” Masurovsky has been critical of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on his blog, Plundered Art.

The Montreal museum, a beneficiary of the Stern Estate, co-operates with the Stern restitution project. The museum’s director, Nathalie Bondil, says that it is planning a ceremony marking the IHRA’s year under Canadian chairmanship. But a section of the museum’s website devoted to provenance information has been removed amid concerns over at least two paintings. Bondil says that future publications by the museum will address questions of provenance.

One of the works is The Deification of Aeneas, 1642, by Charles Le Brun, which once belonged to the Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker and was bought in New York in 1953. “We contacted the museum almost a decade ago and have been seeking the return of the painting ever since,” says Larry Kaye, the lawyer representing Goudstikker’s heirs.

Work to be returned

Another painting—Gerrit van Honthorst’s The Duet, 1623-24—is now the subject of a restitution agreement. The work had belonged to Bruno Spiro, a Jewish arms dealer who allegedly committed suicide in 1936 while interned in a concentration camp in Hamburg. The Nazis later held a sale that emptied Spiro’s villa in Berlin.

Around four years after Spiro’s heirs in the US tracked down the painting to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the work is due to be sold by the family at Christie’s New York. Sources with knowledge of the deal say that Christie’s has agreed to loan funds to Spiro’s grandson, a baker in Michigan, to cover the work’s purchase by the museum, adjusted to reflect the rate of inflation in the years since the picture was bought. Those sources say that the restitution was delayed because the work required clearance as national patrimony leaving Canada.

Michal Hornstein, the 92-year-old chairman of the museum’s acquisition committee and himself a Holocaust survivor, confirmed that the museum had agreed to return the Honthorst but would not say how much compensation it received. “It’s a fait accompli. This painting goes back to the family,” Hornstein says. He adds that he knows nothing about the dispute over a painting by Le Brun.

Hornstein’s donation to the museum of around 70 Old Master paintings, for which it will construct a new building (with free admission), could also be the subject of provenance research. He stresses that provenance information will be available in three months. “I don’t know what the procedure is, but when they finish… this examination, they will publish it,” he says.