Judge Lets London’s National Gallery Keep Matisse Painting

Courthouse News Service 26 September 2017
By John Russell

MANHATTAN (CN) — London’s National Gallery need not deliver Henri Matisse’s 1908 oil painting “Portrait of Greta Moll” to Moll’s heirs, whose lawsuit failed at every point, a federal judge ruled, dismissing it with prejudice.

Margarete Moll’s relatives sued the National Gallery of Art one year ago, claiming they lost the painting during the Allied occupation of Germany in World War II.

But U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni ruled that plaintiffs Oliver Williams et al. failed to establish jurisdiction under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, failed to establish that there had been an illegal taking, and that “even if plaintiffs could allege such facts, their claims are time-barred.”

Greta Moll and her husband Oskar were students of Matisse’s, Caproni wrote in the summary of her Sept. 21 ruling. They bought the painting from him after Oskar commissioned it. The order traces the provenance and loss of the painting in the years after World War II, when the Molls moved from Berlin to Wales. First, Greta sent the painting with one of her own pupils to Switzerland for safekeeping, but the student stole the painting or sold it, according to the ruling. The Knoedler Gallery in New York bought it in 1949 and sold it to a Texan, who sold it to a collector in Switzerland, who sold it to a London gallery, which sold it to the National Gallery in 1979, two years after Greta had died.

The plaintiffs claim that Knoedler lacked good title.

But in dismissing, Caproni ruled, “there has been no taking in violation of international law as required by FSIA [the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act], and the court does not have jurisdiction over the National Gallery and Great Britain pursuant to FSIA’s expropriation exception.”

Nor does it matter, Caproni wrote, “whether the National Gallery profited from any catalogues sold that included images of the painting or from the loan of the painting may be relevant to determining disgorgement for plaintiffs’ unjust enrichment claim, but the amount of any required disgorgement is ancillary to the primary issue — whether plaintiffs have superior title to the painting.”

Among other things, the judge wrote: “There is also no question that plaintiffs inexcusably delayed taking action to recover the painting. Plaintiffs have known for decades that the National Gallery possessed the painting. As explained above, plaintiffs’ ancestor acknowledged that she learned that the painting was at the National Gallery as of the late 1970s or early 1980s.”

The plaintiffs were represented by Edward Kelly with Tiajoloff & Kelly in New York City, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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