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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations
04/22/2009

Painting lost in Holocaust recovered

17th century painting belonged to a Jewish art dealer who was forced to sell it by the Nazis

NEW YORK - A 17th century painting is back in the hands of its rightful owner 72 years after it was stolen by the Nazis. Today, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, returned the painting to the Estate of Dr. Max Stern. "Portrait of a Musician Playing a Bagpipe" belonged to the late Jewish art dealer Max Stern in Germany during the 1930's.

The oil on panel painting returned today is a rare early-17th century portrait of a musician playing a bagpipe. The portrait was painted in 1632 in the Netherlands. Max Stern consigned this piece to the Lempertz Auction House in Cologne, Germany, after the Nazi regime forced him to sell it and more than 200 other paintings. The proceeds from the forced sales were never forwarded to Max Stern, who fled Germany to avoid further persecution and eventually settled in Canada.

Information from the New York State Banking Department's Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) led ICE agents to a Manhattan art gallery owned by Lawrence Steigard. ICE agents approached Steigard in an undercover capacity. Once the gallery owner admitted the painting was in his possession, ICE agents identified themselves, and informed Steigard the painting was stolen and registered in several stolen art databases.

The investigation revealed that gallery owner Steigard was not aware the painting, valued at about $60,000, was stolen when he acquired it from a London dealer. Steigard eventually signed a stipulation consenting to ICE's seizure of the painting for return to the Estate of Dr. Max Stern.

"It is only fitting that we return this precious work of art on Holocaust Remembrance Day," said Peter J. Smith, special agent-in-charge of ICE Office of Investigations in New York. "More than 200 paintings from the Stern gallery were forcibly sold. ICE is committed to finding all stolen pieces of art from the Holocaust and returning them to their rightful owners."

"We remember the Holocaust to honor those lost, to affirm the sanctity of human life, and to prevent such an atrocity from happening again," said Lev L. Dassin, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. "Each work of art returned brings us one step closer to the goal of repatriating all of the surviving works of art stolen by the Nazis. The collaborative effort that brings us to the Museum of Jewish Heritage today attests to a simple, but important, truth: we remember."

"The various American government agencies involved in this seizure should be commended for their exemplary efforts. Addressing wrongful acts from the Nazi period such as the looting of art are at the forefront of our mission," said Clarence Epstein, director of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project at Concordia University in Montreal. "An important step has been taken by law enforcement and we are hopeful that other organizations and individuals will follow suit."

"As we reflect today on the immeasurable losses brought about during the Holocaust, I am honored to have had a part in this small but important victory for Holocaust survivors and their heirs," said Anna B. Rubin, director of the Holocaust Claims Processing Office. "I would like to thank our federal colleagues for their cooperation and swift action."

Max Stern and his wife, who had no heirs, started a foundation that supports universities and museums across North America and Israel. The Max Stern Art Restitution Project directly benefits Concordia University and McGill University in Montreal and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Accepting the portrait on behalf of the executors of the estate was Clarence Epstein of Concordia University.

ICE, the largest investigative agency of the Department of Homeland Security, handles investigations into cultural artifacts that show up on the world market. ICE is a participant of the Department of State's Holocaust Art Recovery Working Group.

For more about ICE's cultural heritage investigations, please go to: http://www.ice.gov/pi/news/factsheets/index.htm.