A truly extraordinary individual, Max Stern delved into almost all facets of the art world during the course of his life. A German-Canadian arts dealer, benefactor and historian, he was the owner of Montreal’s landmark Dominion Gallery, described as the most spectacular commercial gallery not only in the city but likely in all of Canada.
Before settling in Montreal, Stern, a German-born Jew, was the owner of Stern Gallery in Dusseldorf, one of the most prominent galleries in the city. However, the rise of Nazism forced him to close the gallery and sell its inventory in 1937, and eventually flee the country.
His life and legacy will now be honored in the upcoming exhibition at Stadtmuseum in Dusseldorf. Initially set to open in February and subsequently travel to Haifa and Montreal, the exhibition Max Stern — From Düsseldorf to Montreal was recently in the center of the controversy when it was abruptly canceled by the Mayor Thomas Geisel of Düsseldorf.
Following an outrage from the art world and the Jewish community, the exhibition will go ahead after all, but in a “more complete and revised form” at a later date.
Born in Mönchen-Gladbach, Germany in 1904, Max Stern was the son of Julius and Selma Stern, who had founded the Galerie Julius Stern in Dusseldorf in 1913. He entered the family gallery business in the fall of 1928, to become the gallery’s owner in 1934 after his father’s death.
Stern had great ambitions regarding the gallery, planning to open branches in London and New York City. Unfortunately, his plans were disrupted by the rise of Nazism in Germany.
In 1933, The Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture) (RKK) was founded in order to encourage all forms of artistic creation from the Nazi point of view. RKK also demanded that all art professionals become members of Reichskammer der bildenden Künste (Reich Chamber of Fine Arts) (RKdbK), one of its subordinate chambers.
In 1935, RKdbK informed Stern that he does not fulfill the requirements for membership and that he is, therefore, prohibited from the further practice of an art dealer. All Jewish citizens were not allowed to sell art, and Stern was given four weeks to either sell or dissolve all holdings in the gallery.
After several appeals, the deadline was moved to December 15th, 1937, when Stern was forced to auction off a large segment of the gallery at one of Germany’s oldest auction houses, Kunsthaus Lempertz. Since not all pieces were sold, Stern left what remained with the shipping agent Josef Roggendorf who held the artworks until it was all confiscated by the National Socialist government.
On December 23rd, Stern left the country with nothing but a suitcase, traveling to Paris and continuing to London to join his sister Hedwig. He lost his German citizenship in 1939.
After spells in detention camps in Britain and Canada, he finally settled in Montreal, Canada, where he was eventually named the director of the Dominion Gallery of Fine Art, and later the owner, due to his academic background and art dealing experience. During his career, Stern made many contributions towards Canadian art culture and organized many important exhibitions for artists such as Emily Carr or member of the Group of Seven.
He also made many donations to Canadian institutions and museums. After his death in 1987, the gallery continued to operate until 2000.
After the war, Max Stern spent several years trying to track down his lost works. Despite his efforts, only Musical Party by Dirck Hals, Landscape with Figures by Salomon van Ruysdael and Last Judgement by Hieronymous Bosch were found.
In 2005, the Max Stern Art Restitution Project was established by the executors and university beneficiaries of the Max Stern Estate in an effort to locate the missing artworks. The project is seeking restitution of all 400 pieces that were either confiscated by Nazis or sold under duress in the 1930s.
Since the project was launched, 250 artworks have been identified, including pieces by Brueghel, Bosch, Caracci, and Winterhalter. Following Max Stern's ideals and legacy, estate executors plan to loan the reclaimed pieces to museums and galleries.
In addition to finding missing works, the project aims to encourage the straightening of injustices caused by Nazi cultural policies.
Organized by the Stadtmuseum with partner museums in Canada and Israel, the exhibition Max Stern — From Düsseldorf to Montreal was intended to honor the life and legacy of Mr. Stern and teach about the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, now one of the world's most significant initiatives addressing Holocaust-era cultural theft.
However, after years of preparation, the Düsseldorf city government abruptly canceled the show, citing "current demands for information and restitution in German museums in connection with the Galerie Max Stern".
Concerned about the listing of Stern's works, some of which are held by German museums, Mayor Thomas Geisel asked for a scholarly investigation into the history of these pieces before a public debate could take place. He argued that the exhibition in the Stadtmuseum could not address these complex issues.
The perplexing move demonstrated the extent to which the issue of Nazi-looted art remains unresolved, continuing to stir debates in Germany.
The decision was followed by an international outrage, accusing the government of protecting illegitimate holdings. The criticism forced the mayor to backtrack his decision, stating "it was never my intention to sweep the life and career of Max Stern under the carpet".
The exhibition will now take place in the Stadtmuseum with an additional yet-to-be-appointed curator and a scholarly advisory board in October 2018. Additionally, an international symposium on Stern will be organized by the city in order to research the subject further and discuss "possible forms of communicating and documenting it".
Featured image: Max Stern and his wife, c. 1952, via Max Stern Art Restitution Project. All images used for illustrative purposes only.