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12 September 2018

US court rules London's National Gallery can keep 'Stolen' Matisse

Matisse's heirs claim painting was stolen in the wake of second world war, but appeal court upholds 2017 ruling.


A US appeals court has decided the National Gallery in London can keep a painting by the French impressionist artist Henri Matisse, which three of his grandchildren, Oliver Williams and Margarete Green from Britain and Iris Filmer from Germany, had sought to reclaim for the family.

Alleged theft

The three grandchildren claim the 1908 painting ‘Portrait of Greta Moll’ was stolen. Margarete Moll, known as Greta, had sat for 10 three-hour sessions for her painting, which Matisse reworked after seeing a work in Paris by the Italian Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese. She became the painting’s owner after her husband Oskar died in 1947, and then entrusted it with one of her husband’s former art students for safekeeping from looters in Switzerland. Ms Moll’s heirs said the student stole the painting, which then changed hands several times, including through a Manhattan gallery, before the National Gallery bought it in 1979. The family sued after the Spoliation Advisory Panel, a British government body reviewing Holocaust-era claims, said it lacked jurisdiction because the Nazi era ended in 1945, two years before the alleged theft.

2017 ruling upheld

In a 3-0 decision, the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York said sovereign immunity shielded the museum and Britain from having to return to the grandchildren. The court said the heirs also failed to allege that the painting was ‘taken,’ and therefore could not reclaim it under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. In ruling, the court said ‘the alleged taking of the painting was committed by a private actor,’ and ‘the National Gallery’s refusal to compensate [plaintiffs] for that taking after the fact does not provide a basis for jurisdiction over a foreign sovereign and its instrumentality.’ The decision upheld a September 2017 dismissal of the case by US district judge Valerie Caproni in Manhattan.

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