Lawsuit concerning ownership of a Matisse rejected by Supreme Court

Lawsuit concerning ownership of a Matisse rejected by Supreme Court
'Portrait of Greta Moll Artist,' Henri Matisse, 1908. Copyright © The National Gallery, London.

The US Supreme Court declined to hear a case that worked its way up through the US justice system concerning the legal ownership of a painting by Henri Matisse. Portrait of Greta Moll, made in 1908, resides in the stores at London’s National Gallery (NG). However, three of Greta Moll’s grandchildren were demanding $30 million in compensation from the NG or the return of the portrait citing that the painting was taken in a manner that violated international law.

‘Portrait of Greta Moll Artist,’ Henri Matisse, 1908. Copyright © The National Gallery, London.

Eight years ago, Moll’s grandchildren, Oliver Williams, Margarete Green, and Iris Filmer, began the process to reclaim the artwork once owned by their grandparents. In September of 2018, though, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld the ruling of a lower court decision that the NG was the rightful owner of the painting. The ruling further upheld that the NG was immune to the lawsuit because the NG is outside of the US court’s jurisdiction and the lawsuit did not meet criteria set out by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The grandchildren appealed that September hearing sending the suit to the US Supreme Court. Now that the US’s highest court has declined the case, the grandchildren have exhausted their legal options within the US.

After Margarete (Greta) Moll sat for the painting, her husband, Oskar Moll, acquired it directly from Matisse. The painting then went with the couple to Berlin, where they living after World War II. The Molls decided to send the painting abroad, though, to safeguard it from potential looting in the upheaval of the war. The Moll’s grandchildren allege that the painting was sold by the art student entrusted with the painting without the Moll’s permission. The NG then bought the painting in 1979.

‘Portrait of Greta Moll,’ in situ at the National Gallery. Courtesy Flickr Commons.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, David Rowland, lawyer for the Molls’ heirs, said that ‘[a]t the heart of the issue here is the question of whether cultural property, lost, stolen or looted due to war, should be returned to its true owners […] Most right thinking institutions and persons recognize that war and its aftermath strains civil society to its limits, but when order is restored after war, cultural property that was uprooted due to it, should be restored to its rightful ownership. Sadly, that has not been the case here.’

The NG has defended its ownership citing that the whereabouts of the painting were well-known prior to their purchase and that they became the owner in good faith. In a statement from March 4th, the NG further defended their purchase saying ‘[t]his is not a case involving Nazi looted art; the Claimants allege that the family lost the painting due to the dishonest act of a family friend in 1947, many years before it was purchased in good faith by the National Gallery.’ The NG also stated that if there had been any suggestion that Nazis looted the artwork, it would have been considered by the UK Spoliation Advisory Panel, a 2015 government body tasked with investigating Holocaust-era claims. However, the panel could not consider this painting because it was sold in Switzerland in 1947, two years after the Nazi era ended.

Following the Supreme Court’s rejection, the NG said in a statement:

‘The National Gallery welcomes the news that the US Supreme Court has denied the Claimants’ petition to have their appeal heard by the US Supreme Court. This means that the US Courts have rejected conclusively the Claimants’ allegation that the painting was “taken” in violation of international law.’