Friday, June 22The Voice of London

Matisse portrait ownership: National Gallery faces legal claim

Greta Moll’s family fights for the ownership of the $30m portrait.

Reporter: Cecilia Peruzzi | Sub-Editor: Holly Patrick

Henri Matisse, portrait of Greta Moll | (
Henri Matisse, portrait of Greta Moll | (

In 1908, artists Greta Moll and her husband Oskar were living in Berlin. That same year, Greta posed for renowned artist Henri Matisse, resulting in the painting “Portrait of Greta Moll”, with its current home being the National Gallery in London. Acquired in 1979, the National Gallery bought it for £450,000 and has had ownership of it ever since. That is,until Moll’s heirs decided to file a legal claim against the gallery demanding for the portrait to be returned to them.

According to its provenance sheets, the portrait was in Moll’s possession until 1945, with no information regarding its whereabouts after that. Technically, this would make it part of the Nazi plunder that had taken place during the time of the Third Reich. If that were true and the National Gallery was to keep ownership of the painting, then Britain would be violating its UNESCO and Hague Convention commitments, which states all Nazi looted property to be returned to its rightful owners.

However, Gabriele Finaldi, the gallery’s director, claims that Moll actually held on to the painting until 1947, before giving it to friend Gertrud Djamarani, who took it to Switzerland. Unable to pay a loan, Djamarani reportedly ended up leaving the picture in Switzerland as a collateral. After that, the painting went through different owners before being bought by the gallery in 1979.

Oliver Williams, Margaret Green and Iris Filmer, Moll’s heirs, based in Germany and England, decided to file the complaint with the Southern District of New York, USA. David Rowland, the acting lawyer for the claimants, stated how improper and unethical it is for public museums to hold on misappropriated/stolen artwork, defining the portrait as one of the pieces “lost in the Nazi-era and its immediate aftermath”. The piece is valued at over $30m, which is also the amount the claimants are asking for in compensation should the National Gallery decide not to give the portrait back.

Gabriele Finaldi and chairwoman of the gallery, Hannah Rothschild, have stated that the gallery will be fighting the claim and calling for the case to be dismissed over “jurisdictional issues”, as the claim was filed in New York but none of the claimants live in America and the gallery is located in London.

The portrait has been with the National Gallery since 1979, so why wait almost 40 years to get it back? It’s quite doubtful that the heirs have just discovered the painting. Even if they don’t get the artwork, they could still be entitled to $10m each in compensation, doesn’t sound like a bad consolation price at all.