NEW YORK (Reuters) - The National Gallery of Art in London was sued on Wednesday in New York for the return of the 1908 Henri Matisse painting “Portrait of Greta Moll” by three grandchildren of its subject, who claim it was stolen.
Margarete Moll, known as Greta and a pupil of Matisse, lived in Germany during World War 2, and soon afterward entrusted the painting for safekeeping from looters to an art student of her husband Oskar in Switzerland, according to the complaint.
But the student absconded with the painting, which later passed through Manhattan’s Knoedler & Co art gallery and other hands until it was bought in 1979 by the National Gallery, which ignored a “red flag” that the work might have been stolen, the complaint said.
According to court papers, the museum’s newly-installed director Gabriele Finaldi in letter dated Sept. 21, 2015 refused to return the oil-on-canvas work, citing “statutory constraints.”
But Moll’s grandchildren said that by keeping ownership of the painting, while allowing its exhibition and selling merchandise depicting it in New York, the National Gallery “has ignored the international legal standard that such war-related lost property should be returned to its true owners.”
Oskar Moll had bought the painting from Matisse in 1908, the complaint said.
“The Gallery has received the legal documents,” the museum said in a statement. “We have no comment to make at this time.”
Oliver Williams and Margarete Green, both of Great Britain, and Iris Filmer, of Germany, filed their lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan. They are seeking at least $30 million of damages if the painting is not returned.
“This is a family heirloom of their grandmother, by Matisse, which belonged to her,” David Rowland, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an interview. “It is not acceptable, moral or legal for museums to bury their heads in the sand, and keep stolen paintings in their collections.”
According to the museum’s website, Greta Moll sat for 10 three-hour sessions for her portrait.
Matisse reworked the portrait after seeing a work in Paris by the Italian Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese, “broadening the arms and emphasizing the curve of the eyebrows, to give the figure grandeur and monumentality,” the museum said.
The case is Williams et al v. National Gallery of Art, London et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 16-06978.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Michael Holden in London; Editing by Marguerita Choy