When Max Stern, owner of the Dominion Gallery in Montreal, died in 1987, he was one of the most important art dealers in Canada. As his estate was liquidating the 5,000 works held at Dominion, representatives came across evidence of another, less voluntary liquidation: Fifty years earlier, Stern’s original gallery — Galerie Stern in Düsseldorf— had sold its artwork at a forced auction. Representatives of the Stern estate became determined to restore the legacy of the persecuted Düsseldorf dealer and to locate and recover more than 200 objects that he was compelled to sell in 1937.
Now, in an inspired move, some of those works are part of an event being billed as a “ghost exhibition” — an art exhibition without the art. The exhibit, Auktion 392: Reclaiming the Galerie Stern, Düsseldorf — named after its sale number at the Lempertz auction house in Cologne — is being held in New York at the Leo Baeck Institute. Instead of the actual artwork, the show includes black-and-white images of several dozen missing pieces, according to Clarence Epstein of Concordia University, who oversees the Max Stern Art Restitution Project. (Stern left the bulk of his estate to three institutional heirs: Concordia and McGill universities in Montreal, and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.)
The images offer eerie shadows of what was once the thriving trade of a German gallery. Only two are in color, indicating that these artworks have been located and the Stern claims have been resolved. (“Color is returned to a story that was very dark,” Epstein said at the exhibition’s opening last month.) The intent of the exhibition is to encourage governments, museums, collectors and those in the art trade to focus on restitution, he said.
Max Stern inherited his original gallery from his father, Julius, in 1934. In many ways, Max was a typical German Jewish art dealer. With a regional clientele, he was successful, but not flamboyant — hardly in the league of such avant-garde, cosmopolitan dealers as Alfred Flechtheim and Paul Cassirer. Nor did he represent Expressionist artists, such as Egon Schiele or Gustav Klimt, or stock artworks that were considered offensive, edgy or decadent in their day. Experts say that the Lempertz catalog for Auktion 392 includes images of wholesome women and bucolic landscapes, whose aesthetic appeal and financial value were probably limited to that time and place.
“The Gestapo did not have much against him,” said Willi Korte of Silver Spring, Md., an art tracker who is assisting the estate with restitution claims for the Stern works. “His art was desirable. The only thing they had against him was, he was Jewish.”
Stern dealt primarily with traditional 19th- and early 20th-century paintings and with works on paper for middle-class customers. His stock was not of museum quality; such works generally were not described in the literature, nor were they inventoried or photographed — which made them harder to identify decades later with any certainty.
“From 1935 to 1937, Stern was trying to fight what he thought might be a fightable situation against the Nazi order to close his business,” Korte said.
The Lempertz sale was the end of Galerie Stern in Germany. The works were sold at a fraction of their value, and Stern did not have access to the proceeds from the auction. Because the works were sold under duress, all are eligible for restitution — if they can be identified and located. Stern recovered a small number after World War II.
Last October, the estate regained the first painting: “Aimee, a Young Egyptian” (1869), also known as “Cimbals” by Emile Lecomte-Vernet. Sotheby’s, which discovered the painting, had sold it in 2001. The title was different, and there were no pictures of the Lecomte-Vernet available from Stern’s estate, but the measurements and details of the work determined it to be a Stern painting.
Another painting, Nicolas Neufchatel’s “Portrait of Jan van Eversdyck” (1580), was restituted to the estate in time for the opening of the Leo Baeck exhibition. The painting was part of the Yannick and Ben Jakober Foundation’s portrait collection in Mallorca. The Holocaust Claims Processing Office of the New York State Banking Department, which is assisting with the claim, provided documentation that it had belonged to the Stern estate. Because of national patrimony laws, however, the Neufchatel could not easily be exported from Spain. In what the foundation called a “Solomonic decision,” the portrait will remain on permanent loan to Spain, although the title has been transferred to the Stern estate.
The exhibition, which includes some of the documentation showing the Nazis’ constraints on Jewish art dealers, will be on display at Leo Baeck until May 11. Then, it is scheduled to be shown in Israel and Europe.
Marilyn Henry is the author of “Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference” (Vallentine Mitchell).