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Mondrian at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is Nazi loot, claim alleges

Mondrian at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is Nazi loot, claim alleges

ART NEWS

Mondrian at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is Nazi loot, claim alleges

The family of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian’s designated heir are demanding the return of a 1926 abstract painting by the artist from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, claiming that the work, now estimated at more than $100m, was seized from a German museum and sold in New York through a dealer who specialised in unloading “degenerate” art for the Nazis.The claim, filed in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, identifies the painting as Composition with Blue, which the complaint says the artist consigned to the art historian and patron Sophie Küppers in 1927. Küppers stored the picture in the Provinzialmuseum (now Landesmuseum) in Hanover, and joined her husband, the artist El Lissitzky, in the Soviet Union. As happened throughout Germany in 1937, Nazi authorities removed works deemed “degenerate” and art owned by Jews from state museums. (Küppers was not Jewish, although Lissitzky was.) The Mondrian was seized and passed on to Karl Buchholz, a dealer whom the Nazi government assigned to sell art that had been seized.In 1939, the dealer Curt Valentin, an agent for Buchholz, sold the painting in New York to the collector A. E. Gallatin, known at the time for his Gallery for Living Art, which he established at New York University. Gallatin showed the Nazi-looted picture there, and donated it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1952.In a statement, the Philadelphia Museum noted that Gallatin was in contact with Mondrian, who lived in the US and died there in 1944. The museum also stated that Mondrian’s designated heir, the artist Harry Holtzman, knew that the painting was at the museum and never claimed it as his property. Holtzman died in 1987. The claim for Composition with Blue is brought by a trust representing his three children.According to the museum, “We have no reason now to question Mondrian’s decisions or those of his good friend and immediate heir, Harry Holtzman, who for another 43 years after Mondrian’s death was fully aware that the Philadelphia Museum of Art owned and displayed the painting and never made a claim. We will vigorously defend against this meritless claim.” Timothy Rub, the museum’s director, retires early next year.“The museum is relying solely on technical defenses, which have no merit,” said the claimants’ lawyer, Lawrence Kaye, who says he’s not aware of anyone who disputes that the painting was stolen by the Nazis.In September, the Philadelphia Museum returned a 16th century Italian “pageant shield” to the Czech Republic, which had been looted by the Nazis and passed through the hands of Leopold Ruprecht, the specialist in arms and armor for Adolf Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. The shield had once been owned by Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary, whose assassination in 1914 helped trigger the outbreak of the First World War.


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