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Mondrians at Germany's Krefeld Museum. Photo courtesy of Kunstmuseen Krefeld.

Kunstmuseen Krefeld Sued by Heirs for Return of Mondrian Paintings

German institution Kunstmuseen Krefeld is facing a lawsuit filed in US District Court by the heirs of Piet Mondrian demanding restitution of four of the artist’s paintings loaned to the museum in 1929 as well as financial remuneration for four additional works that are alleged to have been sold sometime in the 1950s to pay for acquisitions of new works by Braque, Chagall, Matisse, and Picasso.

The suit was filed by trustees of the Elizabeth McManus Holtzman Irrevocable Trust on behalf of the children of Elizabeth McManus Holtzman and Harry Holtzman, an American abstract artist who brought Mondrian to New York in 1940 during the German blitz of London, where the Dutch painter was living at the time. Holtzman later became the executor of Mondrian’s estate and the artist’s sole heir.

According to the filing, Mondrian in 1929 loaned eight works to the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, which is part of the Kunstmuseen Krefeld, for a planned exhibition. However, the institution’s director, Max Creutz, died in 1932 before the show could take place. The following year, the Nazis came to power, branded Mondrian a “degenerate” artist, and placed a new director, who was unaware of the loan, in charge of the museum.

The works were rediscovered in storage in 1947, three years after Mondrian’s death, but the museum failed to notify his heirs, instead selling four of the works to finance the aforementioned purchases. The remaining paintings were first listed in the institution’s inventory in 1954; Mondrian’s heirs would not learn of their existence until 2011. An investigation concluding in 2017 ascertained that the museum was in wrongful possession of the works, whose value is now estimated at roughly $200 million.

The trust representing Mondrian’s heirs in 2018 asked the city of Krefeld for restitution but was denied on the grounds that the original transaction was too far in the past, with the city additionally contending that Creutz had acquired the paintings privately. The suit was filed on October 15, with the trust citing the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016, which eliminates statutes of limitation for works lost between 1933 and 1945 should a plaintiff take legal action within six years of locating the works.