The National Gallery in London is being sued by the grandchildren of Matisse’s muse over a painting they claim was stolen from their family in the aftermath of World War Two.
The three grandchildren – Oliver Williams, from Kent; his cousin Margaret Green, who lives in East Yorkshire, and a third Germany-based cousin, Iris Filmer – accuse the National Gallery of displaying a painting that rightfully belongs to them.
The trio, through their lawyer, claim that a film last year, Woman In Gold – detailing the struggle of Maria Altmann, played by Helen Mirren, to reclaim family possessions that were seized by the Nazis – shows that such cases are legally sound.
On Wednesday they launched legal proceedings in a federal court in Manhattan, after five years of wrangling over the ownership of the painting. The case was brought in New York because, the plaintiffs argue, the National Gallery has commercial interests in the US and has profited from the work.
The trio want the painting returned, or $30 million in compensation.
David Rowland, a Manhattan-based lawyer representing the family, told The Telegraph that the case was, in essence, about a family wanting to reclaim their heirloom.
The portrait is a family heirloom, he said. It was owned and lost by Greta Moll in an illicit transfer which she did not authorise in the aftermath of WWII.
The celebrated 1908 oil painting shows their trio’s grandmother, Greta Moll – who sat for Matisse in Paris. Moll’s husband Oskar had bought the painting in 1908, and the couple returned to Germany.
Considered a masterpiece of Matisse’s fauve period, it was deemed so significant that it was shipped to New York for a 1931 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, in Manhattan.
But the Nazis were fiercely critical of the Molls’ art work, labelling it degenerate and bourgeois. From 1933 on, Oskar and Greta Moll were prohibited by the Nazis from exhibiting their art in Germany. Articles in newspapers and art reviews defamed them as degenerate and bolshevist artists. They lived in Berlin until 1943, when the city became subject to massive bombing attacks.
On their return, after the War, they found to their delight that the painting had survived. But, given the looting and chaos in the aftermath, they accepted an offer from a former student of Oskar Moll, Gertrud Djamarani, to take the painting to Switzerland and leave it with an art dealer for safekeeping.
Djamarani , who was preparing to emigrate to Iran, then sold the painting, kept the proceeds, and left for the Middle East, according to the suit.
When Greta Moll died in 1977, she had no idea what had happened to it.
Greta Moll, its subject and owner, never sold or transferred title to the portrait to anyone, and it still rightfully belongs to her heirs, the Moll family, said Mr Rowland.
Unfortunately, because of its refusal to return the portrait to the Moll heirs, the National Gallery has left the Moll family no other choice than to file suit to recover this lost family heirloom.
From Switzerland, painting was imported to the US in 1949 by Knoedler & Co in New York City – a now defunct gallery, which in February settled a $25 million case for selling a fake Mark Rothko to the chairman of Sotheby’s.
The painting of Moll was then sold to a private collector, Lee Blaffer, in Texas, before being bought by the Lefevre gallery in London – who finally sold it to the National Gallery in 1979.
The law suit alleges that the National Gallery did not conduct a thorough investigation into the provenance of the painting. Furthermore, they claim that Britain is in breach of its Unesco and Hague Convention commitments to return artefacts stolen during conflict to the rightful owners.
The provenance sheet states that the painting originally came from the collection of Oskar and Greta Moll and that it subsequently was with Knoedler & Co. in New York, the court filings state.
This information alone should have alerted the National Gallery to undertake further research into the provenance.
Especially because the provenance sheet notes that Oskar and Greta Moll owned the painting until 1945, a date which should have triggered the museum’s obligation for more extensive provenance research, and should have alerted them to the possibility that the painting was lost or stolen during or after WWII, when the allies and Great Britain occupied Germany.
In a letter of September 2015, however, the Gallery told the Moll heirs that British law that forbids the National Gallery from dispensing any of its objects.
“This demand is not new, and it is a demand to which, as you are aware, the Gallery board could not acede because of statutory constraints even if they were of the view that the circumstances warranted such an action, wrote Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery.
A spokesman for the National Gallery told The Telegraph on Thursday: As this matter is now the subject of legal proceedings it would be inappropriate for the National Gallery to comment at this time.
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