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Canada: Gaining Ground in Restituting World War II Looted Art

On April 24, 2013, coinciding with Canada’s term as Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the Canadian Department of Heritage issued a press release on their website announcing that the federal government was pledging “funding of almost $200,000 that will enable the Canadian museums to contribute to a key international research effort on the provenance of Holocaust-era works of art.” The announcement stated that the project, headed by the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization (CAMDO), in partnership with six Canadian museums, aims to “research and develop best-practice guidelines” for Canadian institutions.

Canadian institutions have been quite busy addressing the issues surrounding Nazi-looted art since both the Washington and Vilnius Conferences in 1998 and 2000, respectively. Prior to these international Conferences, the American Art Museum Directors (AAMD) released the Report of the AAMD Task Force on the Spoliation of Art during the Nazi/WWII Era (1933-1945) (Report), which prompted the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to create an Ad Hoc Committee on the “Spoliation of Art in Europe.” The same Report was later integrated into guidelines adopted by CAMDO.

Following the 1998 and 2000 Conferences, the Canadian Museums Association (CMA) and the Canadian Jewish Congress held the Canadian Symposium on Holocaust-era Cultural Property in 2001. The Symposium spurred the creation and adoption of eight recommendations reflecting ‘best practices’ for dealing with works of art, hinged on the involvement of various institutions including the Department of Canadian Heritage.

The Canadian Symposium recommendations take into consideration challenges specific to Canada, such as the size of the museum community, the division of federal and state powers affecting cultural property, the lack of resources and expertise in the area of research and restitution and financial constraints.


Between 2001 and 2013, there have been several examples of restitution in Canada, including a recent instance in Montreal. In a press release issued on April 23, 2013, only a day before the government’s funding announcement, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) both received and returned two separate works that were looted during World War II.

First, a painting by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller entitled Children on Their Way Home from School, recovered by the rightful owner’s descendant Georges Jorisch, and was donated to the MMFA by the “Jorisch family in tribute to Montreal, the city that offered refuge to so many exiles.” Having been hidden in Belgium during the War, Georges Jorisch, the grandson of the painting’s original owner, relocated to Montreal in 1957. Upon his passing, his family donated the work to the MMFA “in gratitude to the city of Montreal for its hospitality in the post-war years.”

Second, a painting by Gerrit van Honthorst entitled The Duet was returned by the MMFA to the heirs of Bruno and Ellen Spiro. The Duet had been taken from the Spiro family in 1938 by the National Socialists and after changing many hands, was “purchased in good faith from an art gallery” in 1969. Christie’s auction house accepted the painting on consignment following its return and auctioned it on June 5, 2013 for the benefit of the descendants of the Spiro family. The painting sold for $3,371,750 (the estimated range was $2-3 million).

Over the last decade, the MMFA has been actively collaborating with claimants, researching provenance and restituting works to their rightful owners. The MMFA reports that it was

the first museum in Canada to return a work to the original owner with the assistance of the Canadian government.

The MMFA is but one of many Canadian institutions committed to the return of looted art. On March 18, 2005, acting on behalf of the estate of the renowned collector and dealer, Dr. Max Stern, Concordia University (along with McGill and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) exercised their  “right to pursue the lost works” – and thereby committed themselves to international restitution efforts.

Having earned his Ph.D. in art history in 1928, Dr. Stern (1904-1987) inherited his father’s art gallery in 1934 and began expanding the collection from that moment onwards. However, the Nazi takeover shortly thereafter prevented Stern – of Jewish heritage – from working in the art market. It was further reported that in addition to closing his gallery and being forced to sell many of the works in his collection, he consigned his and his mother’s personal collections to another dealer, which were later confiscated by the Gestapo.  Dr. Stern was interned in England as an enemy alien then spent several years at internment camps in Canada. He settled in Montreal in 1941. After World War II Dr. Stern was active in pursuing the return of his lost works.

The Max Stern Art Restitution Project was launched and continued the initiative in 2002, and has been quite successful in fulfilling its mandate. The Project achieved a great victory in 2008 when the Trustees of Stern’s Foundation legally pursued the restitution of one of the confiscated paintings. In that case, the United States First Circuit Court ruled that the forced sale of Stern’s collection (in this case the Mädchen aus den Sabiner Bergen by Franz Xaver Winterhalter) was equivalent to a theft, giving it the legal weight it needed to further pursue its mandate. The Project has reclaimed ten paintings thus far. The work entitled Virgin and Child, attributed to the Master of Flémalle (1375-1444), was returned by a German museum in March 2013. This September, the exhibition, “Auktion 392: Reclaiming the Galerie Stern Dusseldorf” will open at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum in Florida. It is the eighth leg of an exhibition already shown in eight cities including Montreal, New York, London and Jerusalem.

Clarence Epstein, Ph.D., Director of Special Projects and Cultural Affairs at Concordia University, heads the Max Stern Art Restitution Project. He notes that “the Stern Project is intended to be used both as a resource and as an example for those government agencies, educational institutions, museums, collectors and members of the art trade who are committed to resolving the injustices caused by Nazi cultural policies.”

Significantly, Dr. Epstein revealed that the Stern Project team would be of assistance with the CAMDO research team by connecting them with its international networks and “key players in the European Union and the United States.” He also stated that with Canada’s turn as Chair of IHRA and this federally funded project, such commitments will “highlight the deficiencies and opportunities” concerning the way that matters concerning looted art are treated in Canada and to allow for

a better understanding of the related policies of our country’s cultural institutions.

In addition to the efforts currently under way, Concordia University will be announcing the details of an upcoming conference being held on 6-7 November 2013 sponsored by federal government’s Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The conference, entitled “Plundered Cultures: Stolen Heritage,” will focus on the treatment of cultural property and heritage in relation to experiences of First Nations peoples, as well as those of the Holocaust era and the Armenian Genocide. The presenters will include an outstanding panel of key international thinkers. Details of the conference will be announced on the Concordia University website in September 2013.

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Together with the federally funded initiatives, Canadian museums and individuals like Stern and his estate are taking positive steps in pursuit of restitution of art looted and displaced during World War II.

Sources: Canadian Heritage Department, “Harper Government Invests in Research on Holocaust-Era Artworks” (24 April 2013), available at; AGO, Introduction to the Provenance Research Project: Ownership History for European Painting and Sculpture, 1933-45, online:; Canadian Museums Association & Canadian Jewish Congress, “Canadian Symposium, on Holocaust-era Cultural Property: A Matter ” November 14-16 2001, Ottawa Ontario, online:; Thomas Bastien, “Press Release: The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Plays at the Heat of History – A Ceremony Featuring Three Outstanding Artworks: Gift/Restitution/Acquisition Musée Des Beaux-Arts De Montréal (April 23, 2013), online:
; Jake Brennan, “On the Hunt for Stolen Art Treasures” McGill News Alumni Magazine (10/03/2011), online:;  Max Stern Art Restitution Project, Concordia University online:; Karen Herland, “Concordia’s Restitution Efforts Lead to Landmark Ruling in U.S. Court” Concordia Journal (17 January 2008), online:
; United States Court of Appeals, Vineberg v Bissonnette 08-1136 November 19 2008; Max Stern Estate: 10th Painting Reclaimed” (5 March 2013) Concordia News Stories, online:
; Christie’s Auction House, Gerrit Van Honthorst: The Duet (Utrecht 1592-1656), online:
; Press Release, “17th-Century Dutch Painting Touting Hermitage Museum Provenance to lead Christie’s Old Master Paintings Sale in New York”  Christie’s (3 May 2013), online:
; Telephone interview with Dr Clarence Epstein on 20 August, 2013.