by by Maggie Lange

illustration by by Rita Bullwinkel

In Girl from Sabiner Mountains, a painting by Franz Winterhalter, a peasant woman rests languidly by a tree. Sunlight flickers through the branches, illuminating her billowing white sleeves, raven hair, rosy cheeks. The nineteenth century German painter, most famous for his depictions of European nobility, returned to his peasant roots for this charming portrait. After Winterhalter's death, critics wrote off his portraits as superficial, sentimental, hedonistic, romantic. Only in recent years, have art historians reconsidered his work seriously and recently a Winterhalter painting fetched nearly two million at a Christie's auction. Appraisals estimate that Girl from Sabiner Mountains would amount to $94,000 in auction. The charm of this Winterhalter piece is obvious--the reclined peasant girl is the portrait of relaxation. But even Winterhalter's mastery of pleasant idealism cannot conceal this painting's tense and sensitive history.

Until 2005, the Girl of the Sabiner Mountains hung in a Rhode Island home. Providence's resident German Baroness, Maria-Louisa Bisonnette, inherited this Winterhalter portrait from her mother's estate in 1991. In 2005, Baroness Bissonnette released the piece to an auction house in Cranston. A potential buyer consulted the Art Loss Register and then alerted the estate of Max Stern, a famous Jewish art dealer ousted from 1930's Germany by the Nazi party. Upon learning of the painting, the estate of Max Stern sued the Baroness for ownership, claiming that the piece had been "forcefully purchased" from Stern by the Nazis. The Baroness shipped the Girl from the Sabiner Mountains back to her homeland in Germany and the court cases in Providence began. The Baroness made an attempt to move this case to Germany. However, because the Stern estate, based in Canada, filed their claim in Providence first, the US judge has precedence. As exemplified by the Winterhalter trial, often, restitution cases cross borders.
In 1998, 44 nations made a moral commitment to return Nazi-looted art, but few have made good on their claim. None of these countries have instituted standard procedures to deal with restitution. Heirs of the Jewish art dealer Goudstikker, who now reside in Connecticut, recovered over 200 paintings that the Nazis seized in the 1930s. Last year, a niece of a Viennese art patron regained five Klimt paintings after a seven-year fight for their return. And in an act of great benevolence, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts in Boston both agreed to return dozens of disputed antiquities to Italy. Jeff Rosenheim, a curator at the Met in New York, wasn't sunny about the future of these cases. He told the Independent "I don't know whether this is the last of them or if they will continue forever. Issues of possession, of national rights, the politics of claims will always be a problem in the art world."
On December 27, 2007 Chief US District Judge Mary Lisi presided over the case concerning the rightful ownership of the Winterhalter. Max Stern's estate made a case by illustrating Stern's history in Nazi Germany, pointing to the forced liquidation of his art gallery in the 1930s. The rebuttal argued that Baroness Bissonnette's stepfather purchased the painting legally. The Baroness told USA Today, "I have the receipt. My father paid for it. I would like to hope that my parents' name would be cleared." Judge Lisi ruled in favor of the plaintiff, stating, "It's clear that Dr. Stern's relinquishment of his property was anything but voluntary...[his sale] was ordered by the Nazi authorities and therefore the equivalent of an official seizure or a theft."
After being forced to dissolve his gallery in Dusseldorf, Germany, Stern fled to Montreal. Years later he commented on the affair in Germany by writing in an affidavit, "I was blackmailed... totally unjustified and out of thin air." But Stern did not dwell on the past--after moving to Canada he married Iris Westerberg and purchased the Dominion Gallery of Fine Arts in 1944. The Dominion Gallery evolved into one of the most prominent galleries in Canada. Stern was the first dealer to sell Kandinsky to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, and he owned exclusive rights to sell the works of Auguste Rodin in Canada. Mr. and Mrs. Stern were known for their benevolence and dedication to the arts--shown through their willingness to loan paintings and support unknown artists.
After his death in 1987, Stern passed his extensive art collection to McGill University, Concordia University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem featured a show this summer dedicated to the paintings of Max Stern entitled "Auktion 392--Reclaiming the Galerie Stern, Dusseldorf," named after the auction in which Stern was forced to sell his paintings. The Director of Special Projects and Cultural Affairs at Concordia University, Clarence Epstein, told the Independent, "Reclaiming doesn't have a process--it's very recent in its development. We have moral obligations to educate. These are not all happy endings that we publicize."
In an effort to keep the painting from the Stern estate, Baroness Bisonette filed appeals in April, and the appellate court of Providence heard the case Wednesday, October 8. Bissonnette's lawyer, David Levy, claimed that the estate of Max Stern didn't pursue claim to the painting quickly enough to merit possession. Levy didn't bother to contest ownership of the painting, stressing possession as his main concern. In his legal brief, he said he doesn't intend to "quarrel with the difficulties associated with locating lost or stolen property in the aftermath of a war that engulfed the world for almost six years. Records were certainly destroyed."
The attorney for the Stern estate, Thomas Kline, challenged the judges to consider the case in a larger context: "The question of theft is one of historical fact based on the activities of the Third Reich." Kline further detailed Max Stern's history as a Jewish gallery owner. He explained that the Reich Chamber of the Fine Arts, a branch of the Nazi government, started pressuring Stern in 1935 to liquidate his gallery and by 1937 issued a final order to dissolve his holdings to a Nazi-approved auction house. In a 1937 letter from the Chamber of Fine Arts, police warned, "The person in question in a non-Aryan." In November of that year, the Reich sent a letter reading, "The decree is final. Stern is a Jew and holds German citizenship." Stern was forced to relinquish his paintings to the Cologne auction house, who sold Stern's paintings at below-market value. The receipt that Dr. Karl Wilharm, the Baroness' stepfather, signed reveals he only paid what would amount to about $24,000 today. Stern earned no profit from these sales and used the money to flee the country with his mother. Kline also rebutted the claim that the Stern estate didn't pursue the painting actively, claiming, "The very first time the painting was made available for sale, it was found." According to Kline, Stern made trips to Europe in 1949 and filed claims in German restitution courts in the early 1960s. Since the purchase of the painting, the Bissonette family has kept it privately housed, making it nearly impossible for Stern to locate.
Levy pointed out that the Stern estate never listed the Winterhalter piece in its advertisements, placed after WWII in an attempt to recoup his collection. He also mentioned that the painting was displayed in a brief exhibition in Germany in the early 1950s. In his legal brief he claimed that "the efforts to locate the painting were not reasonable under the circumstances of this case."
The circuit court has yet to decide who will have final possession to the painting. The Girl from the Sabiner Mountains is still in Europe, and although the Baroness filed her own court case in Germany, the attorney representing the Stern estate explained that the American court ruling has prevalence because it was issued before the Baroness's case.
Although her lawyer estimated the price of the Winterhalter would fetch nearly $150,000, Baroness Bissonnette has claimed repeatedly that this case is not about money, but rather concerns her family's honor. In an interview with USA Today, the Baroness responded to claims that her stepfather was associated with the Nazi Party saying "There's nothing that's true." She remembers a kindly, benevolent surrogate father who rescued her mother from near poverty in destitute Germany. The Baroness said, "I'm understanding when someone steals something, he comes to your house and takes it. That's stealing."
However, legal records have revealed the Bissonnette's stepfather, Dr. Karl Wilharm, was a low-ranking Nazi serving as a doctor for the Reich. Wilharm joined the Nazi Party on August 1, 1932, six months before Hitler became chancellor of Germany. As a doctor, Wilharm was also a part of the SA, a branch of the Nazi paramilitary force used to break up the democratic government. After the war, Dr. Wilharm faced charges that he failed to treat Jewish patients. Dr. Wilharm was detained in a camp for over a year after the war, but was released in a German appeals court. Willi Korte, a researcher for the Stern estate, explained, "[Dr. Wilharm] was anything but a young, confused man who thought the Nazis could help him out finding a job or something." Despite Wilharm's arrest, German documents, and this trial, Baroness Bissonnette supports her stepfather's innocence. "My father was not a Nazi. Please understand my position," she professed to USA Today.
The Providence case is one of many in a series of attempts by institutions, individuals and governments to reclaim stolen artwork. Willi Korte, an attorney for the estate of Max Stern, said that this case in Providence will set an important precedent. Not only will this apply to more than 200 Stern paintings sold in similar conditions, but also, "Judge Lisi's decision recognizes how the majority of German and Austrian Jews lost their artworks during the early years of the Nazi regime. These were not taken at gunpoint, but lost through forced sales," he said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
Restitution cases are often painful. They can call into question complicated truths and histories for all parties involved. Below the surface of restitution cases bubble the concepts of 'guilt' and 'innocence', 'responsibility' and 'forgiveness'. And although restitution cases are anachronistic by nature, they are not abstract considerations about where the blame of history should fall. Offspring and family members hold the estate, wrapping restitution cases into personal memories and family allegiance.
Clarence Epstein, from Concordia University, told the Independent, "We're really scratching the surface. We are addressing a massive issue with WWII cases but these are so finite. Numerous other restitution cases, relating to aboriginal war losses, historical cases and recent ones, will all be subject to the same argument. As long as facilities are available for people to seek justice, restitution is only in the beginning stages."

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