21 May 2018




Over the past couple weeks, you may have seen the name Max Stern frequenting news headlines. On May 3rd, 2018, news broke that two Canadian curators have withdrawn from a high-profile exhibit about Max Stern. A few days later, on May 7th, a ceremony took place in Munich to restitute a painting to the Max and Iris Stern Foundation.

In today’s edition of #MuseNews, I’ll be diving into the backstory of Max Stern and the long-fought battle for the restitution of Nazi-confiscated artwork.

Image of a young Max Stern in Germany. Source.

Who was Max Stern?

Max Stern was born in München-Gladbach, Germany, in 1904. After earning a doctorate in art history, Max Stern took over management of Galerie Julius Stern, his father’s art gallery in Düsseldorf, Germany. Max Stern inherited the gallery after his father’s death in 1934, but he soon faced the restrictive laws of Nazi Germany, which essentially made it impossible for him to operate his gallery as a Jewish citizen. After facing increased pressure from the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts, Stern liquidated the gallery’s inventory. Stern moved to England, and a few years later to Canada, where he later owned the Dominion Gallery in Montreal. Stern had an extremely successful career as an art dealer in Canada, where he remained until his death in 1987. For a more detailed biographical sketch, read the National Gallery of Canada's description of the Max Stern Fonds.

What is the Max Stern Art Restitution Project?

After Stern’s death, McGill, Concordia, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem became the primary beneficiaries of Stern’s estate. In his lifetime, Max Stern did not openly discuss his life in Germany, so it was only after his death that researchers handling his estate discovered his connection to Galerie Julius Stern. Records also revealed that Max Stern had filed a restitution claim in 1948, which listed 20 paintings and prints that were a part of his lost art collection. In light of this discovery, the beneficiaries of Stern’s estate established the Max Stern Art Restitution Project to recover over 400 paintings that had been unethically taken from Max Stern and now belong to museums and art collectors worldwide. The Project has successfully recovered several works and continues an ongoing pursuit to recover the entire lost collection.

The painting Girl from the Sabine Mountains (circa 1840) was restituted by the Max Stern Art Restitution Project in 2008. Source.

What’s the story behind the upcoming exhibit Max Stern: From Dusseldorf to Montreal?

One of the artworks recovered by the Max Stern Art Restitution Project is the self-portrait of the painter Wilhelm von Schadow. On April 7th, 2014, the Stadtmuseum Düsseldorf returned the artwork, which had once belonged to Max Stern. The return of the painting marked a victory for the restitution project, but it also spurred a partnership between the city of Düsseldorf and the Max Stern Art Restitution Project. The city announced that a major exhibition on Max Stern’s life and legacy would launch in 2018 in Düsseldorf, where it would then tour to Haifa, Israel, and then Montreal.

Exterior of the Stadtmuseum Dusseldorf. Source.

On November 15th, 2017, after the exhibition had been in the works for over three years, the city of Düsseldorf announced the exhibition was cancelled. The reason provided for the abrupt cancellation was “current demands for information and restitution in German museums in connection with the Galerie Max Stern.”

Following the cancellation there was immediate outcry. Many commentators suggested the city was still fearful of returning artworks in their ownership, such as Wilhem von Schadow’s painting The Artist’s Children (1830), which previously hung in the mayor’s office and is now the subject of a restitution claim. Amidst the outcry, an announcement on December 21st, 2017: the city of Düsseldorf reversed the decision to cancel the exhibition.

Why is the restitution of Nazi-confiscated art still problematic today?

The saga of the Max Stern exhibit indicates that just as restitution was difficult in 1948, when Max Stern first sought the return of his artworks, it is still a challenge today. In theory, the restitution of Nazi-confiscated art is encouraged and adopted as best practice within museums, but the actual recovery of lost art becomes problematic when individuals and institutions with vested interest in the artworks are involved.

The fraught exhibition only emphasizes the importance of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, as we are in need of organizations that fight for restorative justice to set the precedent for future restitution claims.

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