Stern Heirs Regain Nazi Loot

Cologne -- Heirs of Max Stern, a Jewish art dealer who fled Nazi Germany after he was forced to close his gallery, announced the recovery of a painting he lost 76 years ago.

Art collectors of Art Kabinett social media network observe an evaporating timeline of Nazi art loot restitution.

Andreas Achenbach’s 1837 landscape, shown above, was offered at Van Ham Fine Art Auctions in Cologne in May. Encouraged by Van Ham, the consignor agreed to negotiate with Stern’s estate. The handover takes place this week in a ceremony at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin.

Two other pictures in the Van Ham catalog of the May event also belonged to Stern, yet the consignor of those works refused to negotiate with the dealer’s heirs. He claimed his grandfather bought the works legally at the Nazi-forced auction of Stern’s gallery.

Van Ham returned the two paintings to the consignor and declined to reveal his name to Stern’s heirs, leaving them with little hope of recovering the artworks.

Forced Sales Considered Legal

The Stern estate’s experience spotlights the difficulties heirs face in tracing and reclaiming the countless Nazi-looted artworks that have vanished into German private collections, even when they are offered for sale by auction houses.

Under German law, the statute of limitations for theft expires after 30 years, and claimants have little hope of winning title in court.

In 1934, Max Stern took over his father’s Dusseldorf art gallery. In 1935, as a Jew, he was forced to close the gallery and sell the gallery contents in 1937 at the Lempertz auction house in Cologne. He was denied the revenue.

In 1938 he fled to London, and settled in Montreal where he became one of Canada's top art dealers.

Tracing Works

Stern died in 1987 without children, leaving his estate to three universities: Concordia and McGill in Montreal and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2002, the colleges began a campaign to recover the lost art, creating the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, administered by Concordia.

The two pictures returned to Van Ham’s consignor -- “Canal in Dordrecht” by Hans Herrmann and Jakob Becker’s “Children’s Festival in the Country” -- are among about 400 Stern’s heirs are trying to trace.

They have recovered 11 so far. The rest are probably in German private collections.

All three Stern paintings in the Van Ham catalog for the May sale have been listed since July 2005 with photographs on the German government’s database of art missing after World War II.

Moreover, Van Ham claims to submit all its catalogs to the Art Loss Register. If there is any reason to be skeptical about a work’s provenance, the company conducts some basic checks. “We can’t do it with every piece,” a spokesman said.

In contrast, auction powerhouses such as Sotheby’s have the resources to employ four provenance researchers, said Richard Aronowitz, who heads its London research team.

They check the painting itself, a company database built up over 15 years, the artist’s catalogue raisonné, and the main lists of lost works published by national governments. Finally, there is confirmation with Art Loss Register.

Perilous Transactions

When disputed works come up at auction in Germany, claimants may not be able to prevent a sale even if they succeed in tracking down the work.

In 2010, heirs of the painter Max Liebermann failed to prevent the sale of a sketch by the artist at the Hamburg auction house Hauswedell & Nolte. The auction house argued that the consignor had proven legal title and said the claim was unfounded.

For foreign buyers, purchasing prewar art at auction in Germany is a case of “caveat emptor,” said Christian Bauschke, a lawyer at Bauschke Braeuer in Berlin.

Bauschke represents the New York dealer Richard Feigen, who agreed to return a picture he had purchased from the Kunsthaus Lempertz. He is now seeking compensation from the auction house in a lawsuit scheduled to be heard by a court in Cologne in December.