This fall, staff members at the Stadtmuseum in Dusseldorf, Germany, were in the final stages of preparing for an exhibition devoted to Max Stern, a Jewish art dealer who was forced to surrender his entire art collection after the Nazis came to power. It had taken three years to bring the exhibition together. But on October 9, the city-owned museum received notice from the local government that the exhibition was being cancelled—a move that has sparked outrage in the art world, as Catherine Hickley of the Art Newspaper reports.
According to city officials, the abrupt cancellation was prompted by “current demands for information and restitution in Germany.”
While there are restitution claims on at least one work that hangs in another Dusseldorf museum, critics have questioned the city’s reasoning. Hickley reports that Oded Horowitz, a leader of the city's Jewish community, has suggested that the cancellation was motivated more by “fears on the part of the city that some of these works will have to be returned to the heirs of the rightful owners.”
As Frank Chalk, a history professor at Concordia University and a founder of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, put it in a conversation with Catherine Solyom of the Montreal Gazette, “There are very influential people in Germany who don’t want to see art returned to Jews."
Dusseldorf officials did not identify the specific restitution claims that prompted them to shutter the exhibition. But in an interview with Sara Angel of the Globe and Mail, Willi Korte, the Max Stern Art Restitution Project's chief investigator, linked the cancellation to the project’s efforts to recover an 1861 Andreas Achenbach painting, which came to the project’s attention after it was displayed at a museum in the German town of Baden-Baden. The painting, titled “Sicilian Landscape,” currently belongs to a private collector named Wolfgang Peiffer who says he acquired it at a 1999 Phillips auction. Peiffer has since retained the counsel of Ludwig von Pufendorf, a vocal critic of Germany’s efforts to remove looted paintings from museums and return them to the heirs of Nazi victims.
According to the exhibition’s organizers, restitution was not a central theme of the exhibition. Instead, the show, titled “Max Stern: From Dusseldorf to Montreal," was supposed to focus on Stern’s life and work, exploring his persecution under the Nazis and the rebirth of his career as an art dealer after he fled to Canada.
In 1934, one year after Adolf Hitler was appointed German chancellor, Stern inherited his father’s Dusseldorf gallery. Months later, he received a letter from the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts informing him that he was prohibited from practicing as an art dealer and should therefore sell or dissolve his business. Left with no choice, Stern sold more than 200 paintings to the Lempertz gallery in Cologne, which was notorious for trafficking works to Nazi leader Hermann Goering, according to Angel of the Globe and Mail.
Stern escaped to England in 1938, later settling in Canada. He established a successful gallery in Montreal and helped promote the careers of prominent Canadian artists like Emily Carr and Goodridge Roberts. When Stern died in 1987, he bequeathed the bulk of his estate to two Montreal universities—Concordia and McGill—and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
In 2002, these institutions launched the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, which has sought to recover works from the Lempertz sale, along with paintings that are missing from the Galerie Stern’s inventory. In total, the project is seeking the restitution of about 400 works; it has recovered 16 pieces to date—including one that once hung in the Stadtmuseum.
The now-defunct exhibition was first announced by the Stadtmuseum in 2014, and largely funded by Montreal’s Jewish community. The show was slated to travel to the Haifa Museum of Art in Israel and then to the McCord Museum in Montreal, but because the show is dependent on Stadtmuseum's holdings, the international leg of the tour has now been cancelled as well.
The cancellation of the Stern exhibition comes as a show in the nearby city of Bonn's Bundeskunsthalle features pieces from the estimated 1,500 works recovered from the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, Hitler's high-profile art dealer. In contrast with the Stern exhibition, the Bonn show has received support from the federal government, and it deliberately highlights Germany’s efforts to return the works in Gurlitt’s collection to the heirs of Nazi looting victims.
"Ownership claims should be a goal and incentive, not a hindrance, to [the Stern] exhibition," Tel Aviv University professor emerita Hanna Scolnicov tells Angel. "Human lives cannot be returned, but art works can and should."
Dusseldorf officials have said that they will hold an international symposium on Stern’s legacy in place of the exhibition. But that has done little to placate critics like Chalk, the Concordia history professor. In an interview with Kalina Laframboise of CBC News, he calls the symposium a “last minute sop … which is clearly designed to soak up the energy that's already been invested.”