Toronto Event Raises Funds For Film On Montreal Art Dealer Max Stern

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Clarence Epstein and Willi KorteTORONTO — In 2008, a U.S. court ordered the return of the 19th-century painting The Girl from the Sabine Mountains to its rightful owner: the estate of the prominent Montreal art dealer, Max Stern.

The German-born Stern had been a successful art dealer in Dusseldorf, but the Nazis forced him to close his gallery in 1937. He ended up selling some 200 European masterpieces at bargain prices.

The Girl from the Sabine Mountains, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, is one of those paintings. Its restitution set a precedent for other claimants of stolen art, because the court equated the forced liquidation of the paintings to theft, according to Willi Korte, a German-born, American art crimes investigator dedicated to finding art looted by the Third Reich.

Korte was instrumental in retrieving the Winterhalter work. He and Clarence Epstein, head of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project (MSARP), were guest speakers at an intimate reception for the project held Sept. 3 by Canadian Friends of Hebrew University of Jerusalem (CFHU) at the Toronto home of Peter Cavanagh and Andrea Wood. Fifty people attended.

Hebrew U, along with Concordia and McGill universities in Montreal, are the beneficiaries of the Max Stern estate. Stern, who died in 1987 with no immediate heirs, settled in Montreal after World War II and, as owner of the Dominion Gallery, became one of Canada’s most important art dealers and collectors.

Epstein, senior director of urban and cultural affairs at Concordia, and Korte, a lawyer and historian, are featured in the documentary, Stolen, which follows Stern’s rise from war refugee to Canadian art luminary. The film also uncovers his early life history in Dusseldorf, which he kept secret, and the contemporary search for his lost masterpieces.

The recent CFHU event was an opportunity to enlighten people about the murky world of plundered art and to interest potential donors in funding Stolen so it can be completed. The film, an initiative of the MSARP, CFHU and Concordia, will benefit Hebrew U and the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism.

Stolen is directed by Phyllis Ellis and produced by Henry Less of HLP+Partners. Sissy Federer, Andrea Wood, Susan McArthur and Robin Turack are the executive producers and project fundraisers.

Korte, known as the “Indiana Jones of the art world” regaled his audience with stories from his years of sleuthing. In his early career as a Nazi war crimes investigator, he gained expertise in archival research.

He worked closely with the World Jewish Congress in investigating Holocaust-era assets held illegally in Swiss banks, and exposing the Nazi war record of Kurt Waldheim, former Austrian president and secretary general of the United Nations.

Korte’s foray into stolen art began in the early 1990s with the recovery of the Quedlinburg treasures, jewelled religious objects and Christian manuscripts worth an estimated $250 million (US). They had been taken from a cave during World War II.

By examining military records, Korte discovered the cave had been guarded by U.S. forces when the priceless objects disappeared. He eventually named an American culprit.

Korte said he used these same skills to locate Stern’s missing art when he began working with the MSARP in 2002.

He learned that Stern had lived in Dusseldorf, a city where the Gestapo had kept thorough files on its residents. Records from the cultural authorities pointed to “a narrative of persecution,” Korte said.

“In late August of 1935, a letter indicated that Max was not qualified to own a gallery, because he was not Aryan. He was told to liquidate the gallery in 1937.”

Korte said U.S. courts are very supportive, but his mission is more challenging in Europe. When Korte found a Stern painting in Italy, the gallery refused to relinquish the work. Ironically, the painting appeared at a recent exhibition in the United States, where it is being held until the dispute over ownership is litigated.

The Girl from the Sabine Mountains, one of the 12 paintings recovered from Stern’s 1937 collection, showed up at a small auction house in Rhode Island. An MSARP researcher noticed the sale of the painting through a link with ebay, Korte recounted. “When we spotted the painting we made a claim.”

For more information on Stolen, visit

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