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National Gallery and the British Public are rightful owners of Portrait of Greta Moll

Update 19 March 2019

The National Gallery welcomes the news that the US Supreme Court has denied the Claimants’ petition to have their appeal heard by the US Supreme Court. This means that the US Courts have rejected conclusively the Claimants’ allegation that the painting was “taken” in violation of international law. The National Gallery bought the painting in good faith in 1979 and its lawful ownership is confirmed. The Claimants have failed to establish any basis for pursuing this claim in the US courts and the Gallery’s position has been fully upheld.

Update 4 March 2019

The Claimants in this case, having lost their arguments before the Court at first instance and in the Federal Court of Appeals, have now applied to the US Supreme Court, asking the Court to consider the question of whether the Gallery’s refusal to give up ownership of a painting which it purchased in good faith in 1979, can amount to a “taking“ of that painting in violation of international law.

Neither of the two US courts, which have already heard argument on this point, gave it any credibility; and the Supreme Court has the discretion to decide whether to allow the Claimants to bring their arguments on this point to the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court declines to consider this point no further avenue of appeal will be open to the Claimants.

This is not a case involving Nazi looted art; the Claimants allege that the family lost the painting due to the dishonest act of a family friend in 1947, many years before it was purchased in good faith by the National Gallery.

Issued 11 September 2018

The National Gallery welcomes the decision of 10 September 2018 by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to uphold the decision of the District Court of the Second Circuit to dismiss all claims made by heirs to Greta Moll in respect of the Gallery’s Portrait of Greta Moll by Matisse. 

The National Gallery acquired 'Portrait of Greta Moll' by Matisse on behalf of the British public in 1979. The Gallery purchased the work from a commercial gallery in London in good faith and is its rightful owner. Prior to the 1979 purchase, the painting was exhibited and published on a number of occasions

Since then this much loved painting has been on display free of charge for millions of visitors to enjoy each year, and it can be appreciated today in Room 41 of our Trafalgar Square building.

We understand that both Greta Moll and her husband were living in Germany during the Second World War. Some years after the war ended, and following the death of her husband in August 1947 (when the family say the painting was still in their possession), Greta Moll moved to Wales. This case therefore does not concern Nazi looted art.

Had there been any suggestion that the family lost the painting as a result of Nazi persecution, the family’s claims would have been considered by the UK Spoliation Advisory Panel, which was set up specifically to deal with such cases. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport however expressly declined, in 2015, to refer the case to the Panel, since he found that it falls outside the Panel’s remit.

The Moll family themselves have acknowledged that they have known of the painting's location for decades and over the years since we bought the painting we have had contact with a number of them. One of Greta Moll’s daughters was photographed in front of the painting in 1992. In 1995, another of her daughters was in correspondence with the Gallery about the fact that her mother preferred the name ‘Marg’ to Grete or Greta Moll. At no point was it ever suggested to us that the painting had been stolen from the family, or that the family had any concerns with the painting being on display here at the National Gallery. We only became aware of these when we received a letter from US lawyers acting for them in 2011.

At that stage the National Gallery shared information with the family’s lawyers which we held on the provenance of the painting, and we invited them to come to the Gallery to inspect all the papers we hold in relation to its history and provenance.

A decision of the New York court of 21 September 2017 upheld the arguments made by the Gallery that there was no justification for bringing litigation in the USA. The court also confirmed that it was far too late for the heirs to bring a case now, given that the family has been aware of the location of the painting for many decades.

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has now upheld the decision of the District Court of the Second Circuit.  It considered and dismissed all arguments of the claimants and found in particular that the painting was never “taken” by the National Gallery in violation of international law as the claimants alleged.

Director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, says:

“We are proud to have Matisse’s superb 'Portrait of Greta Moll' on show to the public in Trafalgar Square. It is there for all to admire and enjoy.”

Chair of the National Gallery Board of Trustees, Hannah Rothschild, added:

“The Board of Trustees of the National Gallery are delighted that the decision of the New York court fully upheld the Gallery’s arguments in this case and that the painting can remain in the Gallery where it can be enjoyed by the Gallery’s many visitors from around the world.”