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November 29, 2017

Max Stern: His art legacy and an abruptly cancelled exhibition of works from the on Galerie Stern in Düsseldorf

Photo Credit : Concordia University - 1952 AP file photo of Max Stern
and his wife, Iris, reviewing an advertisement showing art from his lost collection. 
By: Angelina Giovani

Max Stern was born on April 18, 1904 in Mönchen-Gladbach, Germany to Selma Heilbron and Julius Stern, an important jewish art collector who would later become one of Düsseldorf’s leading art gallery owners. He was the youngest child and had two sisters, Hedi and Gerda. He studied art history in Vienna, Cologne, and Berlin, completing his Dr. Phil. in 1928 at the University of Bonn. His doctoral dissertation was on the accumulated works of German painter Johann Peter von Langer (1756-1824) and was published in 1930 by Kurt Schroeder.

Max Stern started working as a manager at the Galerie Julius Stern in 1928 though it wasn’t until his father’s passing in 1938 that he inherited the family's businesses interests both inside and outside of Germany. Unfortunately, the coming years coincided with the rise of Nazism and the gallery faced all the expected difficulties inherent with being a Jewish-owned business, ultimately resulting in his family's roughly 400-piece collection being liquidated. The Reich Chamber of Fine Arts (German: Reichskammer Der bildenden Künste (RKdbK)) which was established on September 22, 1933 and replaced the Federal Association of German Art and Antiques Dealers (German: Bundesverband Deutscher Kunst- und Antiquitätenhändler (BDKA)) under which dealers like Max Stern had formerly been organized.

In order for people of these professions to be able to practice, they needed to be granted membership by the RKdbK, something denied to Max Stern. For racial reasons he could no longer hold auctions after 1933 and on August 29, 1935, Stern received a final confirmation letter that he needed to liquidate his business within a three-month period. From that point onwards he was also prohibited from practicing his profession as an art dealer. Responding to the growing threat of Nazism, his sister Hedi moved to London and in 1936, together with a former associate from Düsseldorf, Cornelis J.W. van de Wetering, and opened West’s Galleries Limited in London.

By March 1937, Max Stern had sold the two gallery buildings on Königsallee 23-25 in Düsseldorf to the insurance company Allianz, as well as the Stern family home.  Having given up hopes of being able to save his business interests in Germany, he auctioned off the remainder of his gallery stock, some 200+ paintings, and immediately after departed the country on December 23, 1937 due to the deteriorating situation.  

Stern arrived in Paris with nothing more than one piece of hand luggage. He then travelled on to London where over the next year he joined his sister at West’s Galleries. In the meantime, the Gestapo proceeded to confiscate some of Stern's paintings which he had left with Josef Rogendorf, a shipping agent in Köln.

After travelling between France, the UK and Canada and spending years in internment, Max Stern finally settled in Montreal joining the Dominion Gallery of Fine Art in 1941. In 1942, thanks to his knowledge and expertise, he was made director of the company and started his mission to turn the gallery into the leading platform for the representation of living artists. He organized exhibitions for Joseph Fernand Henri Léger, John Lyman, Emily Carr, Stanley Cosgrove, Goodridge Roberts, and others.

By 1946, Max Stern had already began his recovery efforts and travelled to London to recover some paintings and his library. Soon after that, in 1947, Stern and his wife, Iris Ester Westerberg,  whom he married in New York on January 15, 1946, become owners of Montreal's Dominion Gallery (French: Galerie Dominion). In the years to come, the Dominion gallery, which had relocated to 1438 Sherbrooke Street, held major exhibitions on artists like François Auguste René Rodin and Edward J. Hughes, as well as a major exhibition of international sculpture.

In 1987, Max Stern died of a heart attack while on a trip to Paris. He left the bulk of his estate, including any potential recovery of lost artworks, to the charitable Dr. and Mrs. Max Stern Foundation.  The Foundation benefits three non-profit institutions:  Concordia University (Montreal), McGill University (Montreal), and Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel).  His private art collection was bequeathed to a large number of museums in Canada, the United States and Israel, including the Montreal Museum of Fine Art  (French: Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal (MBAM)), the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (French: Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal), and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. His library collection, consisting of around 3000 books, was ceded jointly to Concordia and McGill Universities and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The Max Stern Art Restitution Project was created in 2002 and Concordia was mandated to direct the restitution issues brought forth by the circulation in the art market of works belonging to the Stern Galerie in Düsseldorf. The Estate’s right to claim the artworks was acknowledged by the Holocaust Claims Processing office in New York and the missing works are registered with numerous stolen art and claims databases, as well as with the Commission of Looted Art in Europe. Lawyer and looted art specialist Willi Korte has since been the chief investigator of this project.

Recently the city of Düsseldorf abruptly announced that it had decided to cancel the upcoming and much anticipated exhibition on Galerie Stern at the city’s Stadtmuseum. The travelling exhibition, which has been in preparation for the past three years, was to open first in Düsseldorf in February 2018 and from there travel onward to the Haifa Museum of Art in Israel before finally concluding at the McCord Museum in Montreal.

The exhibition would have brought forward issues which emphasize the problems of ownership history emphasizing transparency and education as crucial aspects of forwarding provenance research and restitution. The reason given by the city government for the cancellation of the exhibition was stated as “the current demands for information and restitution in German museums in connection with the “Galerie Max Stern.”  City authorities have indicated they intend to replace the exhibition with a symposium on the Stern’s legacy next autumn. 

If readers are interested in expressing their concerns about the cancellation of the Max Stern traveling exhibit at the Stadtmuseum Dusseldorf, please feel free to send an email to the Lord Mayor Thomas Geisel at:

Or add your name to this petition asking Lord Mayor Thomas Geisel to reverse his decision and reinstate the exhibition. 

References used in this blog post