Nazi Düsseldorf Königsallee im Nationalsozialismus
The Galerie Stern was located on the Königsallee in Düsseldorf, shown here adorned with Nazi signage during the time of National Socialism.

Germany still has a problematic approach towards Nazi-era art restitution

Few names are as important in Canadian art history as Max Stern. At his Montreal-based Dominion Gallery, he represented the country’s biggest artists in the post-Second World War years, including Emily Carr and Jean-Paul Riopelle as well as international talents Henri Moore and August Rodin, until his death in 1987. Born in 1904 in Monchengladbach, close to Dusseldorf, where he lived as a child and young man after completing his PhD in art, Mr. Stern fled Germany after the Nazis took away his right to work because he was Jewish.

Mr. Stern thought he’d have nothing to do with Germany again. But now, his name is at the centre of international attention on the deficiencies in the country’s handling of Nazi-era art restitution. This explains why Canada was conspicuously absent from the program of speakers at this week’s international symposium, hosted by Mr. Stern’s hometown of Dusseldorf, on his life and work. The one-day conference featured historians, provenance specialists and art-world professionals from New York, London, Paris and Berlin. Not one expert on Mr. Stern, nor anyone with a comprehensive knowledge of his life (a small group of scholars based in Ottawa, Montreal and Munich) accepted the city’s request to be a speaker. (Full disclosure: I didn’t receive an invitation, likely because of critical articles that I have written on Dusseldorf, including one for this paper; instead, I attended as a member of the general public.) What underlies this boycott is Germany’s deep ambivalence and problematic approach toward Nazi-era art restitution.

Mr. Stern grew up in the gallery founded by his father, Julius. He inherited the business in 1934, running the esteemed art dealership for one year before Nazi law declared him unsuitable to promote German culture. In November 1937, under Gestapo orders, Mr. Stern liquidated his inventory – more than 300 paintings listed at fire-sale prices – at Cologne’s Third Reich-approved auction house Lempertz, still a leading business today. Mr. Stern never saw a penny from the 1937 forced sale; its proceeds were ransomed to obtain an exit visa for his mother to leave Germany.

After fleeing Europe, Mr. Stern rebuilt his life in Canada as the famed owner of the Dominion Gallery. Despite Mr. Stern’s success, however, he never spoke of what was stolen from him in Germany. This came to light in the decade after his death, which led his executors – Montreal’s Concordia and McGill Universities and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem – to establish the Max Stern Art Restitution Project in 2002 to break his silence and recover what he lost in Nazi Europe.

The Montreal-based initiative quickly became one of the world’s most important voices on Nazi-looted art recovery. It has reclaimed an average of one work a year since its launch (to date, 18 paintings have been claimed) and has also established groundbreaking precedents. In 2008, for instance, the project restituted The Girl from the Sabine Mountains by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, a painting that resurfaced at a Rhode Island auction house 60 years after it was sold at Lempertz to a high-ranking member of Adolf Hitler’s storm troopers.

The case involved a milestone ruling by U.S. District Chief Justice Mary Lisi, who stated that “Stern’s relinquishment of his property was anything but voluntary.” The decision was historic because not only, for the first time, was the forced sale of art tantamount to theft, a recognition was made that the majority of European Jews lost their artworks through Nazi coercion rather than outright property confiscation.

In Germany, however, Mr. Stern’s estate’s pro-restitution agenda is at odds with conservative factions in the cultural world. After Justice Lisi’s ruling, Henrik Hanstein, the current owner and chief executive of Lempertz, had the auction house go on record stating that the case held no legal ground in his country. Equally vehement is Ludwig von Pufendorf, a lawyer and the former director of Berlin’s Bruecke Museum Foundation. In 2006 and against his wishes, the Berlin senate ordered his museum to restitute Berlin Street Scene by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to Anita Halpin whose grandparents saw the painting (along with approximately 4,000 other works) looted by the Nazis. Mr. Pufendorf commented that the decision had “nothing to do with moral restitution” but rather “a process of commercialization.” His thoughts were quickly picked up others including the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which published a story titled “They Say Holocaust and Mean Money.”

German sentiments against Nazi-era looted art claims run high, bolstered by the fact that (unlike Austria, the second-highest looter of Jewish art during the Third Reich) the country has no law to facilitate the recovery of plundered culture. Moreover, the country’s civil code states that property cannot be claimed more than 30 years after it was lost or stolen, which shut the door in 1975 to looted-art restitution through German courts. This means that restitution cases rely entirely on moral persuasion and special judicial appeals.

Not until 2013 did Germany set up an Advisory Commission for restitution cases, 15 years after Austria established its Council for Art Restitution. As a result, Germany is lagging: Austria has heard approximately 350 cases to date, Germany has reviewed a mere 15. Furthermore, it wasn’t until 2016 that the German Culture Minister Monika Grutters appointed the first Jewish members to the Advisory Commission (she was reluctant at first to do so, claiming their opinions would be biased). While in 1998, Germany, along with 43 other countries and 13 non-governmental organizations, signed the Washington Declaration voluntarily committing itself to the recovery of art stolen by the Nazis or forcibly sold under Third Reich duress, the treaty remains non-binding.

 These facts offer a context for why, in late 2017, Dusseldorf Mayor Thomas Geisel thought it reasonable to cancel a long-planned exhibition on Stern’s life only months before it was set to open at the city’s Stadtsmuseum. Mr. Geisel argued that he had to terminate the exhibition because the Stern estate had restitution claims against Dusseldorf – including one that the city had hired Mr. Pufendorf to fight.

Three years earlier, the show was set in motion by Susanne Anna, the museum’s pro-restitution director. Because Germany has no experts on Mr. Stern (in large part because Mr. Stern took many of his papers with him to Montreal; what he left behind has not yet been found), Ms. Anna invited two Canadian curators to work with her: Catherine MacKenzie at Concordia and Philip Dombowsky at the National Gallery of Canada.

What Mr. Geisel did not anticipate was the extensive consternation that the exhibition’s cancellation attracted domestically and abroad. At best, his decision was considered an unprecedented and inappropriate overstepping of political boundaries; at worst, it drew accusations of anti-Semitism. The negative media intensified when Mr. Geisel commented that another reason for the show’s termination was the dominant role played by Ms. Mackenzie and Mr. Dombowsky whose work would make the exhibition too “one-sided” (never mind that they were the world’s leading experts).

In a move to save political face, Mr. Geisel then quickly reversed his decision and announced that the exhibition was back on the calendar, with a new opening date of 2020. To further prove that he was committed to the importance of remembering Germany’s National Socialist history, the mayor announced this week’s symposium, intended to lay a foundation for a “stronger” re-conceptualized exhibition on Mr. Stern.

But what became clear to all in attendance at this week’s symposium is that for Mr. Geisel this means a show that will stay far away from the topic of the work of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project and one that will not acknowledge forced sales as thefts. The conference was called “Galerie Stern Within the Context of the Rhineland Art Trade During National Socialism” indicating that the 2020 exhibition will be a broad look at the history of Jewish art dealers in Dusseldorf and its neighbouring cities who were expunged from the region’s history.

In the brochure for the conference, a biography of Mr. Stern’s life offers no mention of the fact that the 1937 Lempertz sale was one that he held under Nazi duress. More revealing, however, is that Mr. Geisel replaced the pro-restitution Ms. Anna with Dieter Vorsteher, the former deputy president of the German Historical Museum in Berlin, who gave one of the conference’s first presentations.

For anti-restitution attendees at the symposium including Mr. Hanstein and Mr. Pufendorf, Mr. Vorsteher is a popular choice because in 2009 he spoke out against the return of more than 12,500 posters (by such artists as Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec) owned by the Jewish collector Hans Josef Sachs. Arrested in 1938 as his collection was stolen under the order of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Mr. Sachs never saw his posters again. In 2005, his heirs discovered the works in the vaults of the Deutsches Historisches Museum. After extensive government appeals, the property was returned to Mr. Sachs’s son Peter, although not until after 2013 and against the protestations of Mr. Vorsteher who called the restitution “a real pity.”

While Mr. Geisel opened the conference by urging Ms. Mackenzie and Mr. Dombowsky to collaborate on Dusseldorf’s 2020 exhibition, as well as three German Stern scholars based at Munich’s Zentralinstitut fur Kunstgeschichte (Central Institute for Art History) this will not happen until the city acknowledges that Germany’s definition of stolen art is far too limited. Until a change is made on this front, the country remains in an untenable position. As Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, puts it: “promising much,” on the subject of Nazi-looted art, but so far, doing “the bare minimum to solve this problem.”

Walking a careful political tightrope, Dusseldorf’s 2020 exhibition on Mr. Stern will most certainly spotlight his persecution by the Third Reich, but like this week’s conference, it will stay far away from acknowledging that the 1937 forced auction was any kind of theft. It will allow anti-restitution cultural leaders such as Mr. Pufendorf and Mr. Hanstein, to control the agenda and to congratulate Mr. Vorsteher (as they did after his keynote address) on creating an exhibition that simultaneously acknowledges the Holocaust but stays far away from compensating its victims.