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WWII Restitution Claim Keeps Artwork Off eBay

Less than two days before a 19th-century oil painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1806-1873) was to be auctioned on the Internet site eBay in January, on behalf of a German baroness now living in Rhode Island, the art was claimed by the estate of a former German-Jewish art dealer.

NEW YORK—Less than two days before a 19th-century oil painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1806-1873) was to be auctioned on the Internet site eBay in January, on behalf of a German baroness now living in Rhode Island, the art was claimed by the estate of a former German-Jewish art dealer.

The German Romantic painting, Mädchen aus den Sabiner Bergen (Girl from the Sabine Mountains), was withdrawn from the auction by Steven Fusco, co-owner of Estates Unlimited, an antiques and fine arts auction house in Cranston, R.I., after it was claimed by the estate of Max Stern in Montreal.

Stern owned a Düsseldorf art gallery, Galerie Julius Stern, in August 1935, when he was notified by Nazi officials that, as a Jew, he was barred from buying and selling art. The regime subsequently ordered that Stern’s collection be liquidated through a state-sanctioned dealer. More than 225 artworks were sold in November 1937 by Math. Lempertz, an auction house in Cologne.

Stern fled Germany; later he settled in Montreal and became a successful gallery owner. When he died in 1987, Stern bequeathed a considerable estate to Canada’s Concordia and McGill universities and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Among the estate’s assets are outstanding restitution claims for the paintings from the Lempertz sale. In 1964 a German court ordered that Stern receive compensation for the Galerie Julius Stern paintings, on grounds that he was compelled to sell at prices below market value. The compensation does not preclude the estate from seeking restitution.

The Winterhalter work was purchased at Lempertz by Dr. Karl Wilharm, whose stepdaughter Baroness Von Morsey Pickard consigned the painting to Fusco’s firm. “Each side has a legitimate claim,” Fusco told ARTnewsletter. “We’re looking for a just settlement. There’s no legal obligation for our client to return it.”

The estate, however, is seeking restitution, not compensation. “It is our intention to loan to Canadian museums artworks returned to us,” says Clarence Epstein, director of special projects in the office of the president of Concordia University, who oversees restitution efforts on behalf of the Stern estate.

In the past six months the Stern estate has submitted a list of some 250 artworks to the Art Loss Register, Epstein reports. The register flagged the Winterhalter work just before the Rhode Island sale. Says Fusco: “We advertised it in the trade publications, someone caught it, and contacted the Art Loss Register to be certain it had no dubious title. And, sure enough, it came up.”

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