Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625)
Still Life with Flowers
oil on panel, 25.98 x 19.69 in. (66 x 50 cm)
Prior to its confiscation by the Gestapo, Still Life with Flowers by the Flemish artist Jan Brueghel the Elder belonged to German art collector and art dealer Dr. Max Stern (1904-1987).
Stern was born in München-Gladbach (today, Mönchengladbach), Germany, in 1904. He was the youngest child and only son of Julius and Selma Stern. His father was a textile manufacturer who shifted his focus to art collecting and dealing and opened the Galerie Julius Stern in Düsseldorf in 1913, exposing a young Max to art and nurturing his interests. Stern studied at several universities and eventually earned a PhD in art history from Bonn University in 1928. He then promptly joined the gallery staff and assumed management shortly before his father’s death. When Julius died in October 1934, Stern inherited the gallery—renaming it Galerie Stern—but never saw it thrive as it had been increasingly threatened by the rise of National Socialism and anti-Semitic culture in Germany since 1933.
In September 1933, Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture or RKK) was established with the department the Reichskammer der bildenden Künste (Reich Chamber of Fine Arts or RKdbK). When Stern later applied for the compulsory membership into the RKdbK so he could continue dealing, he was denied admission in August 1935. Stern could no longer legally practice his profession in Germany and his Düsseldorf business was ordered to close and dissolve. He took advantage of a suspension of the order, attempting to save his business through a quasi-Aryanization scheme, but his requests were consistently rejected.
By September 1937, the German authorities had had enough and issued the final closure order—albeit, ultimately with an extension date—stipulating that no further appeals from Stern would be entertained. By then, Stern had begun to surrender to their orders and had sold the two buildings that had housed Galerie Stern. That November, his inventory of 228 artworks was placed for auction at Math. Lempertz auction house in Cologne. Those that didn’t sell at Lempertz would have to be sold by Stern himself. The proceeds generated by the sale of property and assets were never utilized by Stern to start a new life in London, but rather returned to the Reich as compulsory payment. Except for his library, which he was able to ship to London, Stern and his mother’s collection of artworks were mostly left in the stewardship of Josef Roggendorf in Cologne, who owned a logistics company, and were prohibited from being exported from Germany. A few paintings remained with Lempertz.
Just before Christmas 1937, Stern departed Düsseldorf for Paris a defeated man. After several weeks in Paris with his sister Gerda, Stern settled in London, joining his sister Hedwig at the West’s Galleries. The artworks left in Cologne were confiscated by the Gestapo, which had been well-informed of Stern’s status by the RKdbK and were following his activities. Some were then handed to a lesser-known auction house to be sold.
Stern’s time at the West’s Galleries was short-lived. When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, he soon became an enemy alien and was detained in an internment camp on the Isle of Man. His internment was transferred to Canada and after two years in custody he was released on the word of William Birks, who was associated with the Canadian National Committee on Refugees, and settled in Montreal. There, Stern rebuilt his life through the commercial art trade, eventually buying and transforming the Dominion Gallery and Canadian art market. A year prior to Stern owning the gallery, he married Iris Westerberg from Malmö, Sweden. She would be her husband’s business partner for decades until her death in 1978.
At this time Stern was also attempting to reclaim what he had lost in Germany by pursuing the restitution of his former collection. In addition to property and financial assets, he sought twenty paintings from his and his mother’s private collection and filed a claim with British occupational authorities in the European theater in December 1948. To ensure a thorough search of Western Germany, Canadian military authorities notified the American Monuments Fine Arts and Arts and Archives (MFAA) offices in March 1949, which requested an investigation into the holdings of the collecting points. The details of that investigation, if it even occurred, are unknown, and Stern did not recover any artworks through the assistance of the American MFAA. In addition to asking for assistance from military government agencies, Stern took out an advertisement in the German magazine Die Weltkunst featuring images of nine important artworks he was seeking. Brueghel’s Still Life with Flowers was among the featured works.
His restitution efforts immediately after the war were met with limited success. British authorities questioned Josef Roggendorf and discovered that he still had two Stern paintings, a work by Dirk Hals and another by Salomon van Ruysdael, in his possession. These artworks had never been confiscated by the Germans. Stern’s ownership was quickly verified, and the artworks were returned through Canadian authorities. Three artworks which had been delivered to the Municipal Art Museum of Düsseldorf (Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf) in 1939 on Nazi orders were lost. The museum had just been a repository for the Gestapo’s seizures and had not kept track of the artworks that had been stored there. A handful of additional artworks were located in private German collections and settled in the 1950s. Stern was awarded monetary damages from the 1937 liquidation of his gallery inventory in the 1960s.
As for the artworks stored at Roggendorf’s facility: The Gestapo in Cologne reported to their counterparts in Düsseldorf in January 1941 that they had seized thirteen artworks belonging to Stern from Roggendorf’s storage facility. In a report a month later, those same offices corresponded that the works had been auctioned by Auktionshaus Hugo Hufschmidt in Cologne. The works collectively sold for a total of RM 7,320. Those thirteen artworks were also reported in an affidavit provided by Stern to restitution authorities after the war in his claim. Brueghel’s Still Life with Flowers is one of these thirteen artworks whose whereabouts remain unknown.