Piet Mondrian’s heirs have challenged the Philadelphia Museum of Art over ownership of a painting by the Dutch artist that estate officials claim was looted by the Nazis. They seek to recover the work, entitled Composition with blue (1926), which has been in the museum’s collections for almost 70 years.
According to the provenance provided by the PMA, the diamond-shaped canvas was presented in 1927 by the artist to the eminent art dealer Sophie Küppers. She gave it to a museum in Hanover, Germany, which was later raided by National Socialist authorities in 1937, shortly before Mondrian fled to London. It was then acquired in 1939 by the famous American collector AE Gallatin from the Buchholz Gallery in New York, a popular repository of so-called “degenerate” works of art trafficked by the Nazis.
PMA officials said Mondrian never objected to Gallatin’s ownership of the painting or its display in the collector’s living art gallery at New York University. In 1952, Gallatin bequeathed his entire collection to the PMA.
A lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia on Friday by directors of Connecticut-based Elizabeth McManus Holtzman Irrevocable Trust, children of Elizabeth McManus Holtzman and American painter Harry Holtzman, who sponsored Mondrian’s immigration to New York to escape to Nazi persecution. After Mondrian’s death in 1944, Holtzman was appointed his executor and the sole heir of his estate.
The complaint states that Mondrian died four years after arriving in the United States, “unaware that he had had any recourse to recover his precious painting. Likewise, Harry Holtzman also died without learning that Mondrian, and therefore he, owned the painting. “
One of the trustees who filed the lawsuit, Madalena Holtzman, said in a statement to ARTnews that this “great work of Mondrian was seized by the Nazis.” We are very disappointed to have been forced to take legal action to uphold our rights. “
The PMA strongly rejected the accusation that Composition was acquired illegitimately. Holtzman, who died in 1987, did not dispute PMA ownership of the painting, officials said.
In a statement to ARTnews, the museum said it “fully supports the restoration of works of art looted by the Nazi regime to their rightful owners, and we have done so in the past.” However, “the private trust that sues the Museum has no legitimate claim to Composition with blue by Piet Mondrian. In fact, the painting was purchased by AE Gallatin, a friend of the painter, who with Mondrian’s full knowledge and continued support posted it publicly. Mondrian even volunteered to restore the artwork for Gallatin and expressed great pleasure in Gallatin’s handling of the painting.
The museum said it “will vigorously defend itself against this baseless claim.”
Last year, the Kunstmuseen Krefeld was the subject of a similar lawsuit brought by the estate seeking the confiscation of four of the artist’s paintings on loan to the German institution in 1929. The lawsuit also sought damages and interest on four other works that would have been sold in the 1950s to finance the acquisitions of works by Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. According to the heirs, the works surfaced in deposit in 1947, but the museum neither notified the estate nor promptly listed the paintings in its inventory.
The heirs publicly claimed ownership rights to the Krefeld group in 2018, according to a report in the New York Times. The museum told the Time that the institution believed the works were donations from Mondrian, but had no evidence to prove this claim. A spokesperson for the museum said Mondrian “regularly donated paintings that he no longer needed.”