RI woman loses appeal in Nazi-era art lawsuit

By: AP
By: AP

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- A painting forcibly auctioned by Germany's Nazi government should remain with the estate of a late Jewish art dealer who lost it when his gallery was liquidated, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The ruling by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston blocks an attempt by German baroness Maria-Luise Bissonnette to recoup the painting "Girl from the Sabine Mountains," which has been valued by appraisers between $67,000 and $94,000.

The painting is believed to be a work of Franz Xaver Winterhalter, a 19th-century artist famous for painting Queen Victoria, the czar of Russia and other European nobles.

Last year, a federal judge in Providence ordered Bissonnette to give the painting to the estate of Max Stern, who lost about 400 paintings and his family's Dusselldorf art gallery when the Nazis forced its closure in 1937. Bissonnette then sought to overturn the lower court's ruling and win the painting back.

In Wednesday's three-judge ruling, Judge Bruce Selya said the court was righting a wrong committed during one of history's bleakest periods, the Holocaust.

"The mills of justice grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine," Selya said.

Bissonnette, who lives in Providence, declined to comment on the ruling.

In 1935, Nazi officials warned Stern he had four weeks to regroup or dissolve the family business. He resisted until 1937, when he was denied a chance to transfer his business to a professor and closed the gallery.

"This decree is final," a Nazi official warned in a letter preserved by Stern's estate. It includes an ominous note to the Gestapo: "Stern is a Jew and holds German citizenship."

Bissonnette stepfather, Dr. Karl Heinrich Christian Wilharm, bought the painting at an art auction house in Cologne in 1937. Wilharm was a member of the Nazi Party and a medical officer for the Sturmabteilung, or SA, a Nazi paramilitary force.

After his gallery closed, Stern fled to England, eventually resettled in Canada and became a successful art dealer in Montreal. He died in 1987 and left his estate to three universities that are trying to reclaim Stern's paintings; most are still missing.

"Girl from the Sabine Mountains" is in Germany, but estate officials hope to eventually display it inside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

"I think this is a historic judgment," said Clarence Epstein, who works at Concordia University in Montreal and heads the restitution effort for Stern's estate.

Bissonnette moved to the United States and later inherited the painting from her parents. Stern's estate tracked down the missing artwork when Bissonnette attempted to sell it in 2005. After negotiations broke down, lawyers for Stern's estate filed a lawsuit seeking the painting's return.

The lawsuit argued that since Nazi authorities illegally auctioned Stern's artwork, any sales that followed were invalid.

In her appeal, Bissonnette argued the Stern estate waited too long to bring its lawsuit and that the lower court judge should have allowed Bissonnette more time for discovery.

(This version corrects that Wilharm is Bissonnette's stepfather, not father.)

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