Baroness must relinquish art to Jewish man's estate

The case is one of several legal battles in recent years over artworks that changed hands in the Nazi era.

Winterhalter art 88 224 (photo credit: AP)
Winterhalter art 88 224
(photo credit: AP)
A painting held by a German baroness rightfully belongs to the estate of a late Jewish art dealer who was forced by Nazi authorities to auction it off, a federal judge ruled. US District Judge Mary Lisi ordered Maria-Luise Bissonnette on Thursday to turn over "Girl from the Sabiner Mountains" to representatives of the estate of Max Stern, who died in 1987. "It is clear that Dr. Stern's relinquishment of his property was anything but voluntary," Lisi wrote. Although outside experts have not authenticated the painting, both sides claim it is a work of Franz Xaver Winterhalter, a 19th-century artist who was famous for his portraits of European nobility. One appraiser for Bissonnette estimated the painting, which is now in a German warehouse, was worth up to $94,000. Lisi's ruling "vindicates Dr. Stern's effort to try and hold onto his collection during the Nazi era, (and) to seek its return afterward," said Thomas Kline, a lawyer for Stern's estate. Marta Garrett, a lawyer for Bissonnette, would not comment on the ruling or say whether Bissonnette plans an appeal. Stern inherited his family's Dusseldorf art gallery in 1934. Three years later, Nazi authorities forced him to auction off its contents because he was a Jew. He fled Germany after the auction and eventually settled in Canada, where he became a prominent art dealer. Stern did not keep the proceeds from the auction, according to lawyers for his estate. To secure exit papers for his mother, who was still in Germany, Stern had to pay arbitrarily imposed taxes. "I was blackmailed," Stern wrote in an affidavit. The taxes "were totally unjustified and came out of thin air." Bissonnette's stepfather, Karl Wilharm, a Nazi party member, purchased the painting at the auction. Bissonnette eventually resettled in Rhode Island and inherited the painting from her parents. Stern left his estate to McGill and Concordia universities in Montreal and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The schools have continued Stern's work in trying to find his paintings, several of which remain missing. Stern's estate found the Winterhalter painting after Bissonnette attempted to auction it in 2005. They first tried to negotiate its return but when talks broke down, lawyers for the estate filed a lawsuit to get it back. Bissonnette has said that she and her family did nothing wrong. "I have the receipt. My father paid for it," she said earlier this year. "I would like to hope that my parents' names would be cleared." The case is one of several legal battles in recent years over artworks that changed hands in the Nazi era. Last year, five paintings by Gustav Klimt were handed over to Maria Altmann of Los Angeles, niece of a Viennese art patron. Altmann had waged a seven-year fight for their return. Another tangle involved a Vincent van Gogh painting purchased by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1960s. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider a claim brought by descendants of a former owner of the painting, a Jewish woman who had fled Germany in 1939.