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Montreal school fights for Nazi-looted art

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Max and Iris Stern on a ship returning to Europe in pursuit of his lost art, around 1950. (Concordia University)

Max and Iris Stern on a ship returning to Europe in pursuit of his lost art, around 1950. (Concordia University)

MONTREAL, March 29 (JTA) — A Montreal university is trying to recover a trove of Nazi-looted art. Concordia University, one of three educational institutions that inherited the holdings of the late European art collector Max Stern, is intensifying efforts to recover all of Stern’s art stolen by the Nazis. Stern ran an art gallery in Dusseldorf in the 1930s, but his shop was closed and his art seized by the Nazis. He survived the Holocaust and ended up in Montreal. Stern got a job at Montreal’s renowned Dominion Gallery. In 1947, he and his wife become the owners of the gallery until his death in 1987. Concordia, McGill University and Hebrew University were three of the beneficiaries of Stern’s estate, but more than 400 of works of art that belonged to Stern were stolen by the Nazis. A year ago, Concordia committed to recovering the art works on behalf of the other executors and university beneficiaries. So far, the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, in conjunction with the New York-based Holocaust Claims Processing Office, has located more than 40 works in public and private hands and is working toward their recovery. Most of the works were offered on the market in the past two decades, and most by the same 15 auction houses in Germany. Over the next several weeks, the claims office plans to approach the auction houses and ask for their help in contacting the last known owners of these works. Art historian Clarence Epstein of Concordia is in charge of the restitution project. What’s startling, he said, was the scope of what was discovered when the universities decided to liquidate and give away the 5,000 pieces of art Stern left in the Dominion Gallery when he died. “We also didn’t understand the scope of what we had uncovered until we found a catalog of a forced sale of Stern inventory held in Cologne. That catalogue became one of the first books of our bible of Stern inventory,” Epstein said. The inventory continues to grow, he added. Asked if he believed the German auction houses and the individuals holding Stern art are knowingly peddling looted items, Epstein was charitable. “I have to give them the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “This whole process is about educating people regarding a bygone era and place that the years have erased.” He added that he doesn’t know exactly how much more Stern art is out there, and that it likely will take years to find it all. This fall, the Stern story will go on the road. “We will be putting on a traveling exhibit, beginning in the fall of 2006, that will showcase images of the lost works,” said Chris Mota, Concordia’s director of media relations. Epstein said Concordia would be aided by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, which will include elements of the Stern case in the upcoming edition of its annual Holocaust Education Series.

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