Grandchildren of Matisse's muse sue National Gallery for reclaim of 'stolen' portrait

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 WW II.

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.

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.

“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.