The London National Art Gallery is facing allegations of theft from a lawsuit filed by the heirs of a priceless family heirloom–an heirloom that just happens to be the famed painting “Portrait of Greta Moll” by renowned French artist Henri Matisse. “Portrait of Greta Moll” is a 1908 oil painting that is considered a masterpiece from Matisse’s fauve period, in which he favored painterly brushstrokes and bold color over realistic qualities. Oliver Williams, Margarete Green and Iris Filmer—who filed the suit against the National Art Gallery—are the grandchildren of Matisse’s muse Greta Moll.
Greta Moll was a student of Matisse along with her husband Oskar Moll, according to the lawsuit. She sat for the painting in Paris and afterward bought the painting from Matisse before moving back to Germany with her husband to sculpt and teach art.
The period in which Matisse and the Molls lived was during the rise of Nazism, which launched a propagandistic agenda against many German artists of the time. Newspapers and media defamed many artists, labeling their artwork as “degenerate” and “Bolshevist,” and they were prohibited from displaying their artwork anywhere in Germany. Consequently, the Nazis were fervently critical of Greta Moll’s artwork.
When Berlin became a frequent target of bombing attacks during World War II, the Molls moved away and relocated the painting to a friend’s house outside of the city, fearing the plunder or destruction of artwork.
They returned after the end of the war to find that the painting and their other valuables had been preserved. After suffering through starvation for a majority of the war, Oskar Moll died in 1947, leaving Greta Moll to fear for the safety of the painting, as post-war chaos often led to theft.
The painting was entrusted to the care of Oskar Moll’s former student Gertrud Djamarani, who was supposed to secure the painting in Switzerland. Djamarani sold the painting instead and fled to the Middle East. By the time Greta Moll passed away in 1977, she was unaware of what had happened to the painting.
From there, the painting was brought to the Knoedler & Co. Gallery in New York and was sold to a private collector before ending up in the Lefevre Gallery in London. It was finally sold to its current home, the London National Art Gallery, in 1979.
After the war, Britain signed an agreement that it would restore and return any artwork that was stolen or lost during any armed conflict to the rightful owners—which is now causing issues of artistic ownership all over the art world.
The lawsuit alleges that the National Gallery failed to perform an extensive background check on the origins of the piece. The court filings reiterate that “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.”
Moll’s grandchildren ask the museum to either return the painting or pay $30 million in compensation. In a letter, the Gallery stated that a 1992 British law forbids the Gallery from “dispensing any of its objects.”
Director of the National Gallery Gabriele Finaldi responded: “This demand is not new, and it is a demand to which, as you are aware, the Gallery board could not accede because of statutory constraints—even if they were of the view that the circumstances warranted such an action.”
The lawsuit is ongoing and is based in the United States in order to avoid the jurisdiction of the British law.