Dispute over painting raises specter of Nazi legacy

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The oil portrait “Girl from the Sabine Mountains” shows a peasant woman reclining, closing her eyes and stretching her billowing white sleeves behind her dark hair.

The serenity of the figure belies the pain the portrait has witnessed — sold by its “non-Aryan” owner under Nazi orders as the Holocaust began and decades later the subject of a bitter court fight.

It’s believed to be the work of Franz Xaver Winterhalter, a 19th-century artist famous for painting Queen Victoria, the czar of Russia and other European nobles. One of his works fetched almost $2 million at a Christie’s auction.

Appraisers have estimated that “Girl from the Sabine Mountains” was worth $67,000 to $94,000, according to court records. In discussions about settling the case, a lawyer for the woman who inherited the painting said it was worth about $150,000.

The woman, 84-year-old German baroness Maria-Luise Bissonnette, says the stakes go beyond money.

In her dimly lit dining room surveyed by another portrait, this one depicting her stepfather, Dr. Karl Heinrich Christian Wilharm, she thumped her hand on one of the documents overflowing from manila folders on a table, documents describing him as a Nazi sympathizer, a doctor complicit with thieves.

“There’s nothing that’s true,” Bissonnette fumed, nearly in tears.

The man she remembers was completely different: He rescued her and her mother from poverty in the dark days after the humiliating German defeat in World War I, and even now, a lifetime later, much of the beauty in her life, from china and fine furnishings to artwork, is his legacy.

Which brings her story back to “Girl from the Sabine Mountains.” The battle over whether Wilharm obtained it illegally and whether it must be surrendered is also, to his aging stepdaughter, a fight about restoring his reputation.

“I have the receipt. My father paid for it,” she says, standing under Wilharm’s unsmiling gaze. “I’m understanding when someone steals something, he comes to your house and takes it. That is stealing.”

But the documents spread across her table — some of them aging accounts of Nazi brutality — show the dispute over the painting is not so clear-cut or simple.

* * *

A century after Winterhalter supposedly created “Girl from the Sabine Mountains,” it turned up at an art gallery in Dusseldorf, Germany, founded by Julius Stern, a former textile mill owner who specialized in Dutch, Flemish and German painters. In 1934, Max Stern inherited the business from his father.

The enterprise was short-lived. Stern was a Jew and his native country was turning against him.

Adolf Hitler had seized power a year earlier, and the Nazi leader, a failed painter, established the Reich Chamber of Culture to purge Jews, political dissidents and others from the art world. One of its subsidiaries, the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts, sent Stern a letter in August 1935 warning that he had four weeks to regroup or dissolve the family business.

A bureaucrat forwarded a copy of the letter to the police, warning, “The person in question is non-Aryan.”

Stern resisted until March 1937, when he sold the buildings housing his family home and art gallery. Six months later, Nazi authorities rejected Stern’s proposal to transfer his business to a professor.

“This decree is final,” a Nazi official warned in another letter. It includes an ominous note to the Gestapo. “Stern is a Jew and holds German citizenship.”

Forced to liquidate his holdings, Stern consigned more than 200 paintings to an auction house in Cologne. Item 181 in the auction catalog is “Girl from the Sabine Mountains,” which merited a full-page catalog illustration and appeared on promotional fliers.

A receipt kept by Bissonnette shows that her stepfather, Karl Wilharm, bought No. 181 for 4,140 Reichmarks, about $24,000 today, either attending the auction himself or by sending a proxy, as he sometimes did.

The painting went on Wilharm’s wall.

Stern fled Germany, but lost most of his art auction proceeds when Nazi German authorities decided he must pay extra taxes before securing exit papers for his mother.

“I was blackmailed,” Stern wrote in an affidavit years later. The taxes “were totally unjustified and came out of thin air.”

After landing in a succession of Allied internment camps, Stern migrated to Canada and tried to recover his missing artwork after the war. He advertised the losses in art publications, hired German lawyers to press claims and traveled to Europe to reclaim some items himself.

But Stern did not dwell in the past. He married, purchased the Dominion Gallery in Montreal, backed emerging Canadian artists and amassed a fortune before dying in 1987. He left most of his estate to three universities.

“It was only upon his death and the organization of his ­archives that we realized he had kept all this correspondence” related to his postwar search, said Clarence Epstein, who works at Concordia University and heads the restitution effort for Stern’s estate. “He had never let go of the Gallery Stern archives.”

Using those documents, Stern’s estate registered his missing works with the London-based Art Loss Register, an Internet database of missing or stolen artwork.

In 2005, when Bissonnette tried to sell “Girl from the Sabine Mountains,” which she inherited from her parents, a prospective buyer consulted the database, which alerted Stern’s estate.

Before long, Bissonnette received a letter from the Holocaust Claims Processing Office in New York, where a lawyer tried to lead negotiations between Stern’s lawyers and Bissonnette.

“The art market does not look favorably at items with a potentially tainted past,” an HCPO intermediary told Bissonnette in a letter. “I am sure that you will also agree that there are moral considerations in this case.”

Stern’s estate said the Nazi government illegally forced Stern to auction his belongings. Since the auction was illegal, any sales that followed were void, regardless of whether the buyer paid.

Bissonnette’s attorneys said a German restitution court reimbursed Stern for his Nazi-era losses, and that his estate waited too long to bring its claims. Lawyers for Stern’s estate argued the compensation does not block his inheritors from pursuing the paintings and that Stern looked for the missing artwork as best he could in difficult circumstances.

The estate sued in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island, where Bissonnette now lives.

* * *

In her fight over the painting, Bissonnette speaks of little else but clearing her parents’ names.

Her divorced mother married Wilharm, a bachelor in his 50s, in 1930. Six-year-old Maria-­Luise moved into his home.

“He gave me everything, and I was able to get a good education,” she said in an interview. “He treated me actually as his own daughter.”

As tranquility reigned at home, however, turmoil swept her country.

The German democracy born after World War I had entered its death throes. The Weimar Republic was led by a senile president unable to consolidate power. A deep economic depression left millions unemployed.

In this turmoil, Hitler’s Nazi party with its fascist and anti-Semitic politics rapidly gained members.

One of them was Wilharm.

Captured Nazi records and postwar documents collected by Stern’s estate and reviewed by The Associated Press offer a glimpse into Wilharm’s life under Hitler’s rule.

Wilharm joined the Nazi party on Aug. 1, 1932, about six months before Hitler was appointed German chancellor. His wife, Lilli, joined a Nazi women’s organization days after Hitler became chancellor.

Not merely a party member, Wilharm joined the Sturmabteilung, or SA, a Nazi paramilitary force used to destabilize the democratic government, break up the rallies of Nazi opponents and terrify the population into submission.

In Hofgeismar, Wilharm rented a dilapidated button factory on his property to the SA. He also became an SA Santitaets-Sturmbahnfuehrer, or a medical officer.

After the war, German prosecutors argued Wilharm’s early entry into the Nazi party and his SA rank were strong proof of guilt. They also accused the doctor of refusing to treat Nazi victims.

“He was anything but a young, confused man who thought the Nazis could help him out finding a job or something,” said Willi Korte, a researcher working for Stern’s estate.

Wilharm called his SA rank a meaningless honorific for a town doctor. He told postwar courts he continued to care for all people, even Nazi victims and foreign prisoners. He said he tried to keep a Jewish dentist from being kicked off a local medical board and wanted to quit the SA.

But his name comes up in documents detailing a brutal campaign on March 25, 1933, when gun-toting men spread throughout town, captured people they considered enemies and took them to Wilharm’s factory.

Erika Hakesberg, a member of a Jewish family, told postwar investigators that Wilharm was in her home treating her terminally ill brother when men with revolvers came to their door. Wilharm “allowed the men to haul our father from the house,” she said.

He was taken to the factory and beaten beyond recognition, Hakesberg said.

Arrested after the war, Wilharm was held in a detention camp for 16 months. In the end, a German appeals court decided Wilharm was a low-level offender, fined him and sentenced him to a day’s service in the postwar reconstruction effort.

* * *

Then as now, Wilharm’s stepdaughter defended him — though as a teenager during the war she largely claims ignorance about his activities.

Bissonnette, who inherited the title of baroness from her mother, said she believes her first husband, a U.S. Army soldier in the Counter Intelligence Corps, helped secure Wilharm’s release from an internment camp.

When the Stern estate made its claims, she ignored her first lawyer who warned she’d never win. She’s dismissed settlement offers and canceled court-ordered negotiation sessions. She sent the disputed painting to Germany for safekeeping and filed a counterlawsuit there.

“I would like to think that my parents’ name would be cleared,” she said.

If keeping “Girl from the Sabine Mountains” is part of that, she recently suffered a setback.

Just after Christmas, a federal judge in Rhode Island ruled in favor of Stern’s estate and said Bissonnette must give up the painting that has seen so much pain.

Bissonnette’s representatives in Germany have handed it over to Stern’s estate, which wants to display it. She, meanwhile, has decided to appeal the court’s decision.

Nothing has shaken her belief in her father’s innocence, even decades after his death. Not his arrest. Not captured German documents. Not his trial. Not even Bissonnette’s most recent legal loss.

“My father was not a Nazi,” she said. “Please understand my position.”

AP National Writer Allen G. Breed contributed to this report.

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