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Stern Estate Reclaims Long-Lost 17th-Century Dutch Landscape

A 17th-century Dutch painting that had been missing for decades after its forced sale by the Nazis was restored to the estate of its rightful owner on April 21 at a ceremony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York, marking Holocaust Remembrance Day.

NEW YORK—A 17th-century Dutch painting that had been missing for decades after its forced sale by the Nazis was restored to the estate of its rightful owner on April 21 at a ceremony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York, marking Holocaust Remembrance Day.

A Portrait of a Musician Playing a Bagpipe, 1632, by an unknown Nothern Netherlandish artist, was one of about 200 paintings that belonged to Max Stern, a Jewish gallery owner in Düsseldorf, Germany. In 1935, Stern was legally prohibited from buying and selling art in Germany, and in September 1937, the Reich Chamber of Culture (RKK) ordered Stern to sell off his gallery inventory through a Nazi-approved dealer. That fall, Stern sold more than 200 paintings for well below market value at the Lempertz auction house, Cologne.

Elizabeth Nogrady, who had been a graduate-student assistant in the Holocaust Claims Processing Office of the New York State Banking Department, discovered the painting on the Web site of Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, New York, while performing other research and recognized it as one of the works in the Stern claim.

The Steigrad gallery had purchased the work “for under $50,000” last December from London Old Master dealer Philip Mould, said gallery director Alexa Davidson Suskin, and soon after “put it in our catalogue, which is accessible online.” She said that the work was run through the Art Loss Register—a clearinghouse of stolen artworks—twice. “Nothing came up, which shows there are some holes in the system,” she noted.

The gallery took the painting to The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF), Maastricht, the Netherlands, in March, where it carried an asking price of €35,000 ($45,500) but did not sell. Shortly after it returned to New York, Mould informed the gallery that the work was in dispute and should not be sold until the matter was resolved. Mould had bought the work in 2007 at Lempertz.

After Nogrady discovered the painting, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, collaborating with the U.S. Attorney’s office, pursued the work on the basis of an earlier appeals court decision on a separate painting, which declared all the paintings sold at the 1937 Lempertz auction stolen property. According to a release from the New York state banking department, the Steigrad gallery waived all rights to the painting upon learning of its provenance.

Anna B. Rubin, director of the Holocaust Claims Processing Office, wrote in an e-mail to ARTnewsletter, “I am grateful for the great cooperation and swift action taken by our federal colleagues. It is thanks to their efforts, and the amicable understanding of all parties involved, that we were able to see a successful resolution to this case so soon after discovery.”

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