The Big Idea: Charles Dellheim

For today’s Big Idea, Boston University history professor Charles Dellheim delves into Nazi stolen art — and from whom it was stolen — as an introduction to his book Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern.


After more than two decades of intensive scrutiny, it would stand to reason that the resurgence of concern with the fate of Nazi stolen art would fade. Nothing of the sort has happened, however. Family ties, Jewish pride, love of art, and material interests all come into play in battles to regain, or retain, disputed works. Nearly eight decades after the end of the Second World War, we continue to struggle with the tension between remembrance and restitution, between honoring stolen lives and returning stolen art.

New cases and new controversies continue to surface. On September 2nd, an unusually controversial exhibit opened at Stadtmuseum Dusseldorf.  “Deprived of Rights and Property, The Art Dealer Max Stern.” This title politely omits the fact that its subject was Jewish. In 1929, Max Stern, who was trained as an art historian, entered the Galerie Stern. Founded by his father, Julius, an erstwhile textile manufacturer in 1913 in Dusseldorf, the Galerie Stern specialized in 19th century painting, including renderings of Europe’s royal courts, as well as in Old Masters.

Foregoing an academic career in favor of art dealing, Max Stern dreamed of opening new galleries in London and New York. When he took over from his father in 1934, this was out of the question. Already hard hit by the economic turmoil of the Depression that stalled, and threatened to sink, the art market, the very survival of the business (to say nothing of the family Stern) was in question. Banned by the Nazis from practicing his profession, Max Stern was forced to liquidate his collection. He had the good fortune to escape to Britain in 1938.

Even so, his travails were not over: He was interned as an “enemy alien” in Britain and then in Canada. Knocked down but not knocked out, Max Stern started over in Montreal and eventually flourished. He joined the Dominion Gallery, which under his direction became Canada’s finest. Max Stern and his wife Iris bequeathed the bulk of their assets to three academic institutions in Canada and Israel: McGill University, Concordia University and the Hebrew University.

This is only a bare sketch of a life and work, which more than merits an exhibit. Why, then, the controversy? Any  such exhibit taking place in Germany inevitably raises explosive, unresolved issues about the memory and history of the Shoah. As a result, who is allowed, or not allowed, to tell Max Stern’s story, what they focus on and what they screen out, what motivates them and what they hope to accomplish, are fraught questions.

The immediate origins of the controversy go back to the end of 2017. Organized by curators in Canada and Germany, “Max Stern — From Dusseldorf to Montreal,” was slated to open in the Stadtmuseum Dusseldorf in February 2018 and then travel to Haifa before finally arriving, as its subject did, in Montreal. After three years of preparation, Dusseldorf city officials led by then Mayor Thomas Geisel abruptly announced that the show would not go on. This had nothing to do with lack of funding or enthusiasm. It had everything to do, as Mayor Geisel put it, with “current demands for information and restitution in German museums in connection with the Galerie Max Stern.”

Geisel’s limp bureaucratic statement appears to have ensured that the exhibit did not aid or abet claims for contested works of art. Geisel’s unbelievably inept about-face led to sharp slaps in the face from various parties, among them the local Dusseldorf Jewish Community, the World Jewish Congress and the German Culture Ministry.  Consequently, Geisel reversed himself again and announced that an expanded Max Stern exhibit would take place in a revised “form” at a later date. This turned out, for various reasons, to be September 2, 2021. “Deprived of Rights and Property – Max Stern” also was deprived of the participation of the original group of Canadian and German curators, who refused to take part in the new exhibit.

The Max Stern exhibit is more likely to end up as a cautionary tale in a Harvard Business School case-study than in a new version of Profiles in Courage.

What this sorry saga demonstrates above all is the danger of choosing between remembrance and restitution. Honoring dead Jews who were victims of Nazi persecution “looks good,” particularly in Germany for obvious reasons. But honoring victims is no substitute for rectifying crimes. At the same time, the restitution of Nazi pillaged works of art, crucial as it may be, is no substitute for deepening our understanding of, and sympathy for, the Jewish dealers and collectors who loved and lost them.

In my new book, Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern, I turn the story of Nazi stolen art on its head by showing how certain Jewish art dealers and collectors acquired so much great old and modern art in the first place, how these outsiders came to play a pivotal role in the art world, how they joined the ranks of the old masters’ new masters and, above all, became the modernists’ champions, and how their sudden prominence further antagonized antisemites and fueled a violent onslaught by Nazis, who denied their humanity by denying their ability to appreciate, and their right to own, beautiful works of art. I explore these themes in a narrative of the rise and fall of an extraordinary circle of individuals and families – dealers, collectors, and artists

I hope that readers will come away from Belonging and Betrayal with a deeper understanding of, and sympathy for, the fortunes and misfortunes of the people that I write about. But this should not be the end of the story. Remembrance without restitution is futile; restitution without remembrance is hollow. Recapturing stolen paintings cannot redeem lost time, let alone restore stolen lives. But for Max Stern, as for other Jewish victims of the Nazis, it should be a spur to rather than a substitute for scrupulous consideration of claims to Nazi stolen art.

Belonging and Betrayal: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Indiebound

Read an excerpt.

3 Comments on “The Big Idea: Charles Dellheim”

  1. This sounds like it could be a really interesting adjunct to “The Free world: Art and Thought in the Cold War” which I’m currently (slowly) working my way through.

  2. Very interesting indeed. I recently read Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” about the lives and art collections of his Jewish ancestors in Paris and Vienna and Japan. A meditative and immersive book – has left me often thinking back to it and wanting to read more!

  3. Not the kind of thing that I come to whatever for, but interesting enough to read all the way through.

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