Max Stern in Germany, 1925. Courtesy: the National Gallery of Canada Archives/Fonds Max Stern.

Cancellation of German Exhibition over Restitution Claims Sparks Controversy

The mayor of Düsseldorf is facing international criticism after he canceled an upcoming exhibition about Jewish art dealer Max Stern and the restitution of paintings from his collection, which he was forced to sell by the Nazis in 1937, reports Sara Angel in the Globe and Mail. In a statement issued by the city, “restitution claims in connection to Max Stern” were cited as the reason for shutting down the show.

Slated to open at the Düsseldorf Stadtmuseum in February, “Max Stern: From Düsseldorf to Montreal” would have showcased how Stern rebuilt his life in Canada after he fled Germany during World War II, and how his heirs launched the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, a Montreal-based initiative that works toward resolving issues related to cultural theft during the Nazi regime.

For the director of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, Clarence Epstein, the cancelation of the show is “tragic.” “Düsseldorf already once expunged Max Stern from history. It is now happening again, with little resistance from those within Germany who are able to stop it.”

The controversial move highlights the country’s complicated history with addressing art restitution. Its Limbach Commission—a restitution panel established in 2003 to mediate ownership disputes over artwork that was seized by the Nazis—only appointed its first Jewish members last year, following a public outcry. German culture Minister Monika Grütters told the New York Times in 2016 that the panel previously excluded Jewish people due to concerns that they would have been prejudiced. The backlash over the statement led Grütters to reform the panel, which as of last year has only made thirteen recommendations since it was created.

While Grütters has voiced her support for an exhibition of artworks from the holdings of Cornelius Gurlitt, which was amassed by his father Hildebrand Gurlitt—an art dealer who sold works on behalf of the Nazis—at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, she has yet to comment on the city’s decision to cancel the Stern exhibition after it has been in development for three years. “This reflects a persistent unease in German political circles over Jewish claims,” said Marc Masurovsky, cofounder of the Washington-based Holocaust Art Restitution Project.

The show was supposed to open in Düsseldorf in February and was scheduled to travel to the Haifa Museum of Art in Israel and then to Montreal’s McCord Museum. Both of those exhibitions have also been canceled since the majority of the works were to be loaned by the Stadtmuseum.