Greta Moll, who sat for a portrait by Henri Matisse in Paris in 1908, is now at the center of a lawsuit. According to Harriet Alexander of the Telegraph, Moll’s heirs are suing the National Gallery in London for the painting of their grandmother, which they say was stolen from the family.
Oliver Williams, Margaret Green, and Iris Filmer are demanding either the return of Portrait of Greta Moll or $30 million in compensation. The relatives, based in Germany and England, filed the complaint in a Manhattan court. The lawyer representing the family, David Rowland, said, “The portrait is a family heirloom.” He added, “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.” She apparently entrusted the portrait with a former student of her husband’s for safekeeping in the aftermath of WWII, though it then disappeared.
The plaintiffs claim that the National Gallery did not look into the origins of the painting. Since its provenance sheet states that Moll owned the canvas until 1945, the heirs say that this should have been a red flag for the museum. The suit alleges that if the institution keeps the portrait, then Britain will be in violation of its UNESCO and Hague Convention commitments, which require Nazi-looted property be returned to its rightful owners.
In a statement issued today, the National Gallery said that it “will be defending itself against this legal action.” The institution claims it bought the portrait in good faith and claims that it is “the legal owner of the painting, which it holds for the nation.”
The National Gallery of London’s full statement reads:
“Portrait of Greta Moll by Matisse was acquired by the National Gallery in 1979. It was purchased from a commercial gallery in London in good faith and the National Gallery has good title.
The descendants of Greta Moll believe that the family were wrongfully deprived of the painting in 1947.
The National Gallery understands that both Greta Moll and her husband were living in Germany during the war and were regarded by the Nazis as degenerate artists. Several years after the war ended, and following the death of her husband (in 1947), Greta Moll left Germany for Wales (1947/48), so she was not fleeing from Nazi persecution. We understand that the family believe that Portrait of Greta Moll was stolen by a family friend or acquaintance to whom she entrusted the painting in 1947.
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. 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.
When the National Gallery bought Portrait of Greta Moll in 1979 it made the types of enquiries which all UK museums and galleries regularly made at that time regarding the history of a work when purchasing a painting.
The National Gallery would not, even if the theft were proved, be under any obligation to return the painting to the family (just as any individual who had purchased the painting in good faith in 1979 would be under no obligation to return it). The National Gallery is in fact prohibited from making transfers of paintings in its collection, so could not in any event transfer the painting to the family.
The National Gallery first became aware of the family’s interest when it received a letter from lawyers acting for the family in 2011. Prior to that date, the National Gallery had had contact with a daughter of Greta Moll, but it had never been suggested to the National Gallery that the painting had been stolen from the family. No legal claim had been made for the painting through the courts until this week (w/c 5 September 2016).
The National Gallery will be defending itself against this legal action.
It is also worth noting that in the light of concern that some works of art now in public collections may have been looted or otherwise improperly acquired during the Nazi era (1933–1945), without restitution having been made, the National Gallery, like all the other national museums, has paid particular attention to the whereabouts of its paintings during those years.
In March 1999, with the cooperation of the Gallery, The Art Newspaper published an initial list of paintings in the Gallery with incomplete provenance information for the period 1933–1945. Since then the Gallery’s research has continued and an updated list is available on the National Gallery website.”