“Use every means of transport to get all works of art out of Florence …. saving works of art from English and Americans. In fine get anything away that you can get hold of. Heil Hitler.”

Heinrich Himmler (HW1/3113)

This chilling message, underscores the Nazis desire to plunder the cultural property of the Nation’s they invaded. It was systematic and planned; with tasked troops and centralised collection points. The Nazis plan as mentioned in Part 1 was to build a museum near Hitler’s home town, Linz in Austria called the Fuhrermuseum that would house the greatest artworks of Europe.

This brings us to a very recent and significant case of restitution; another painting that was destined for the Fuhrermuseum had Hitler had his way.

On Tuesday 5th March an important ceremony was held at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin to return a painting by a Flemish old master.

This painting belonged to the estate of Max Stern, a German born Jewish art dealer.

This is the first time – a major German Gallery, (the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart), is returning despoiled art work.

The gesture is very significant. It marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Stern’s family gallery in Dusseldorf and the tenth anniversary of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project at Concordia University in Montreal. Concordia University were acting on behalf of the executors of the estate of Max Stern.

The painting is very beautiful and also very valuable. It is an early Northern Renaissance painting called The Virgin and Child. Art historians have identified the work as being by Robert Campin, although further research may now be done on the painting and could lead to a new attribution. Campin was one of the most important artists of his time.

Max Stern had lost a significant number of paintings that he was forced to sell in 1937. He was first banned from art dealing and then forced to close down his gallery in December 1937. Stern then fled to London. The sale of his paintings, including the Virgin and Child was in order to raise the funds to buy a passport to help his mother to flee the country.

According to the Art Newspaper, Stern’s painting passed through the hands of Alexander Haas, a dealer in Frankfurt, who then sold it onto a Dr Scheufelen in 1939. Scheufelen in 1943 then sold 8 paintings to the planned Fuhrermuseum, and at least one of these paintings came from Haas. In 1948, 125 paintings were exhibited in Staatsgalerie that came from Scheufelen’s collection and then 118 of those paintings were then bequeathed and this included the Virgin and Child.

Stern later settled in Canada and opened up a gallery in Montreal and became one of Canada’s most noted art dealers and collectors. He died in 1987 and bequeathed his collection to Concordia University, McGill University in Montreal and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  

Clarence Epstein who leads the restitution project received the painting and was accompanied by the Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kennedy.

Concordia has tried to recover over 400 paintings that Max Stern lost through forced sales. This is the tenth return in ten years and was achieved through the efforts of the Holocaust Claims Processing Office of the New York Department of Financial Services and the Staatsgalerie.

Documents were uncovered that provided crucial parts of provenance. Researchers were able to draw a connection between the family that owned the artwork just before it was acquired by Stern and therefore provided the proof that he was the owner during the Nazi period.

This important paper trial was only discovered in the last two to three years. The provenance trail was made complicated by the fact that Stern’s business records were destroyed when his flat was bombed in the Blitz in London.

It transpires that Concordia have another 40 paintings that belonged to Stern in their sights. Concordia president Alan Shepard said “the most immediate challenge lies in encouraging a number of other museums currently in possession of Stern paintings to follow the lead of the Staatsgalerie.”

Canada is playing a prominent role in restitution and has recently assumed the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

The alliance consists of 31 countries working together to promote Holocaust research and education. Canada is due to host an international conference this Autumn in Toronto and their stated aim is to expand the alliance to other countries.

Canada is therefore building on an international effort to return looted art work.

The Declaration of Principles agreed at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets in 1998, included encouraging the heirs of looted artwork to come forward and for information to be made accessible. Following on from this conference, there was the 2000 Vilnius Forum Declaration and the 2009 Terezin Declaration.

The Commission for Looted Art in Europe www.lootedartcommission.com is an international, expert and non-profit representative body. It is tasked with researching identifying and recovering looted property on behalf of families, communities, institutions and governments worldwide. This organisation also negotiates policies and procedures with governments and cultural institutions and promotes the identification of looted cultural property and the tracing of its rightful owners.

The Central Registry of Information on Looted Cultural Property 1993-1945 www.lootedart.com  is the Commission’s research arm. This is an online database and research centre for Nazi looted art and was set up to fulfil Washington Principle V1 for creating a central register for information. This database contains information and news for 48 countries and covers over 2,500 looted artifacts and missing objects from 123 countries.

With the digital means and resources available – all that is now required is the political will.

Are we witnessing the winds of change?

See Wind of Change – Part 3 on recent cultural heritage developments