MANHATTAN (CN) – The heirs to an Henri Matisse painting lost during World War II have demanded in court that it be returned from the National Gallery of Art, London, along with $30 million in damages.
The painting in question is a 1908 work entitled “Portrait of Greta Moll.” Margarete Moll’s relatives, Oliver Williams, Margarete Green and Iris Filmer, sued the National Gallery of Art, London, on Tuesday in New York’s Southern District seeking to recover the painting, which they say they lost during the Allied occupation of Germany during World War II. The heirs initially demanded the return of the painting in an April 2015 letter to the gallery, which refused their demand in September 2015, according to the complaint.
The family claims the National Gallery of Art’s refusal to return the painting to them violates New York and international law, along with Great Britain’s obligations under a 1970 UNESCO Convention not to acquire cultural property lost or stolen during World War II and its aftermath.
The family also says they never transferred the title of the painting, and they blame the museum for not investigating the painting’s provenance. “When the National Gallery bought the Painting from the Lefevre Gallery in London in 1979, it ignored the red flag that the painting had been transferred immediately after WWII and did not make any inquiries with the Moll family as to how Greta Moll lost possession of the Painting,” the complaint states.
But the National Gallery says it did look into the painting’s history when it acquired it. “When the National Gallery bought Portrait of Greta Moll in 1979 it madethe types of enquiries which all UK museums and galleries regularly made at that time regarding the history of a work when purchasing a painting,” it said in a statement released Friday.
The lawsuit calls the oil-on-canvas painting a “well-known masterpiece of Matisse’s fauve period.” The painting was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of a Matisse retrospective in 1931, which included an exhibition catalogue that mentioned Margarete’s husband, Oskar Moll, as its owner.
During the Allied occupation, the eponymous Greta Moll entrusted the painting to Gertrud Djamarani to deposit with an art dealer in Switzerland, the family says. Djamarani, an art student of Moll’s husband, sold the painting instead and fled to Iran with the profits, which, according to the complaint, caused the painting to be illegally converted without its owner’s authorization.
But the gallery argues that there is no proof the painting was stolen. “Whilst further information on the painting’s history has recently come to light which indicates a gap in provenance between 1947 and 1949, there is no certainty that the painting was stolen and the alleged theft of the painting in 1947 has not been proven,” it said. “Even were it to be proved, the National Gallery remains (by virtue of the purchase in 1979) the legal owner of the painting, which it holds for the Nation.”
The family says the British prevented them from claiming the painting in a British court through a provision in Great Britain’s 1992 Museums and Galleries Act, which “generally prohibits the disposal of objects that are the property of the National Gallery.”
Director of the National Gallery, Dr. Gabriele Finaldi, emphasized in his letter to Moll’s relatives that their claims did not fall within the Spoliation Advisory Panel’s terms of reference because evidence showed that the earliest date the Moll family could have lost the painting was in August 1947, after the protected “Nazi Era” of 1933 through 1945.
The gallery still contends that it is not under “any obligation” to return the painting, and says it will defend the suit in court.
The family seeks a judgment declaring that they are the owners of the painting along with $30 million in restitution for the gallery’s unjust enrichment.
Oliver Williams, Margarete Green and Iris Filmer are represented by Edward Kelly at Tiajoloff & Kelly in New York City.