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Project that reclaims stolen art hits a milestone

Concordia-led effort recovers 10th painting taken by the Nazis.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | MAY 22 2013

The Max Stern Art Restitution Project recently reclaimed its 10th painting on behalf of the Max Stern estate and its three university beneficiaries, Concordia and McGill universities in Montreal and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The 10th reclaimed painting, an early Renaissance tableau of the Virgin and Child attributed to the Master of Flémalle (1375-1444), was unveiled at a ceremony in March at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin. The painting is noteworthy in that it was the first to be returned from a German museum, the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, says Clarence Epstein, director of special projects and cultural affairs at Concordia University and leader of the restitution project.

The art world in Germany has been slower than in North America and elsewhere in understanding and acknowledging the history of their collections, says Dr. Epstein. With this reclamation, he says, “it is hoped that other German galleries will follow suit.”

The restitution project was launched a decade ago to seek the return of art works taken from the Stern Gallery in Düsseldorf during the Nazi era. The late Max Stern was forced to liquidate the collection before fleeing Germany. He eventually ended up in Montreal, where he once again took up art collecting and became one of Canada’s most famous collectors. Years later, Dr. Stern sought restitution of art works from his collection seized by the Gestapo, but the majority of his property was never returned.

Concordia’s Dr. Epstein works with various international groups and agencies to try to locate the lost art. “It’s basically a forensics exercise,” he says. Through the project, “we have identified approximately 400 works from that period that have the potential to be claimed – and that list grows almost monthly.”

When it appears he’s found a painting from the Stern collection, the first step “is not to assume or accuse,” he says. “Not everybody understands what’s at stake, or understands what the story is of the object in their possession.”

The restitution project has been personally “incredibly rewarding,” says Dr. Epstein. It’s different from other restitution efforts, he says, in that the reclamations aren’t being done for personal benefit but to “advance our understanding of a dark period of history, and of our notions of right and wrong.”

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