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Düsseldorf exhibition on Jewish merchant Max Stern finally opens next month, but former funders don’t want anything to do with it

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A few years after taking over his father’s gallery in Düsseldorf, Max Stern, pictured here as a young man, would be forced to flee Nazi Germany.
Courtesy of Max Stern Art Restitution Project

It is rare that an exhibition is confronted with such ill will before it even opens. But an exhibition slated to open in Düsseldorf on September 2, addressing the life and legacy of Jewish art dealer Max Stern, has been rejected by the city’s Jewish community, the dealer’s estate and academics. Canadians who are the world’s foremost experts on Rear.

Even the patrons of the Stadtmuseum, where the exhibition is to take place, don’t want it. “The Association of Friends has no interest in supporting this exhibition,” says Eckhard Kranz, its president. Stranger still, Susanne Anna, the director of the Stadtmuseum, refused any involvement. Anna did not respond to a request for comment.

In this context, even the organizers of the controversial show, Deprived of Rights and Ownership: Art Dealer Max Stern, hesitate to talk about it. “An interview before the press conference [on 1 September] is unfortunately not possible, ”said Valentina Ilgenstein, spokesperson for the city of Düsseldorf. The arts journal. “I ask for your understanding.”

So what went wrong? The roots of the unrest can be traced back to December 2017, when then-Düsseldorf mayor Thomas Geisel abruptly canceled an exhibition on Max Stern at the Stadtmuseum a few weeks before it opened. This show was a cooperative effort that was intended to travel to Haifa, Israel and Montreal, Canada.

The reasons given by Geisel for the cancellation were “the current requests for information and restitution in German museums in relation to the Max Stern Gallery”. But he also suggested that the Stadtmuseum, which is run by the city, was unable to resolve the complex issues surrounding Stern’s life and legacy.

Faced with a deluge of criticism, Geisel abruptly reversed his decision, promising that the exhibition would take place at a later date “in a more complete and revised form”. But by then, he had lost the confidence of the Canadian academics involved in the original show.

The 2017 cancellation “was a professional shock and, in layman’s terms, destroyed any confidence I had in working with the cultural sector in the city of Düsseldorf,” said Catherine MacKenzie, history professor at the art at Concordia University, Montreal, and co-curator of the original exhibition and co-editor of the catalog.

Escape to Montreal

Founded in 1913, Galerie Stern was located in the Königsallee in Düsseldorf. Max Stern took over the gallery after his father’s death in 1934. The Nazis ordered him to liquidate it in 1935, but he managed to run the business until 1937, when he was forced to close and to sell his stock at an auction in Cologne. .

Stern fled Germany and settled in Montreal, where he built a thriving art business as director and later owner of the Dominion Gallery. He died childless in 1987 and bequeathed most of his estate to three universities: Concordia and McGill in Montreal, and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 2002, his estate launched an initiative to recover his lost art, the Max Stern Art Restitution Project.


The children of the artist by Wilhelm von Schadow (1830), in the collection of the city of Düsseldorf, is the subject of a restitution request by the Stern estate

Clarence Epstein, who is leading the project, says the estate could not participate in the new show without the participation of Canadian academics and Anna, the director of the Stadtmuseum.

“It didn’t help that the mayor seemed a little dubious about our pending claim,” Epstein said. The project aims to return a painting to the collection of the city of Wilhelm von Schadow, The artist’s children (1830), which once hung in the mayor’s office.

The curator of the new exhibition, Dieter Vorsteher, told a press conference on July 12 that the exhibition would deal with this request for restitution. Hans-Georg Lohe, the city’s most senior cultural official, expressed regret at the resentment and personal injury caused by the cancellation of the original show. “We will think about it very clearly in the exhibition,” he said.

The Düsseldorf Jewish community participated in the planning of the first exhibition with Canadian and Israeli partners. Oded Horowitz, the organization’s president, stressed that the discussion of restitution and Stern’s legacy is important. But he said the community had no role in the current show. Nonetheless, he said, “we wish the exhibition every success.”


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