As part of an ongoing, yearslong effort to recover ownership rights of several paintings created by Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian in his signature style in the 1920s, the late artist’s heirs filed a lawsuit against a German museum in U.S. District Court, District of Columbia. The suit states that the works in question are estimated to be valued in excess of $200 million and are calling for a jury trial after their attempts for the works to be returned were declined by the museum.
The suit has been filed against the Kunstmuseen Krefeld, which is located in a western German city near Dusseldorf, by the three U.S.-based children of American abstract artist Harry Holtzman and Elizabeth McManus Holtzman. Harry, who died in 1987, helped Mondrian escape to New York from Europe in 1940 to avoid Nazi persecution. He later served as the executor of Mondrian’s estate, became an expert on the artist, and was named the sole heir to his friend.
The heirs are attempting to recover four paintings by Mondrian that are currently held by the museum and damages for an additional four Mondrian works which the museum no longer has. In the lawsuit, the heirs claim that the museum “engaged in a continuous policy or practice of deception to hide from Mondrian’s successors the Paintings and information related to the Paintings that might lead to their discovery.” It also alleges that the works were deliberately kept out of important exhibitions.
According to the new lawsuit, which was filed on October 15, Mondrian sent the eight paintings to the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, which is operated by Kunstmuseen Krefeld and owned by the city, in 1929 for a temporary exhibition that was never mounted.
That show was to be a touring exhibition, organized by Kaiser Wilhelm Museum director Max Creutz and American painter Katherine Dreier, titled “Circle International. Painting and Sculpture.” Through another artist, Mondrian was contacted about being included in the show and his works were sent there directly from another show in Frankfurt. Creutz died in March 1932 without the show going on view and without a successor as director. The Nazis took power the following year and by October 1933 had installed their own director, Burkhard Freiherr von Lepel, who was later identified as a known Nazi art looter.
The Kaiser Wilhelm Museum never returned the paintings to Mondrian, and within the next few years, the Nazi Party began labeling modern art and the artists who made it as “degenerate.” Mondrian, who had been based in Paris, was part that group, which also included Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Emil Nolde, among others. The suit alleges that Mondrian’s eight paintings “only escaped Nazi hands because they were not included in the [museum’s] inventory at the time.”
The heirs say they first learned about their possible ownership of the Mondrian works in 2011, and they claim they contacted the museum to learn more how the works had entered its collection. Two researchers, Monika Tatzkow and Gunnar Schnabel, allegedly contacted them as they were researching works lost during the Nazi era by art dealer Sophie Küppers, to whom Mondrian had consigned artworks. Tatzkow and Schnabel concluded that Kaiser Wilhelm Museum had never lawfully acquired the Mondrian artworks and informed the museum in October 2017. The Lord Mayor of Krefeld said there would be an investigation into the matter but by February 2018 declined to return the works.
The heirs publicly claimed ownership rights to the paintings in question in 2018, according to a report in the New York Times. The Kunstmuseen Krefeld told the Times that the institution believes the works to be gifts by Mondrian, but did not have evidence to back this claim. A spokesperson added that Mondrian “regularly gave away paintings for which he no longer had any use.”
The Kunstmuseen Krefeld did not immediately provide a statement regarding the new lawsuit, which comes as the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, prepares to open a major Mondrian survey in 2022.
Mondrian died in 1944, four years after fleeing Europe for the United States, “believing that his Paintings were lost to him forever,” according to the suit. The heirs further allege that the eight paintings resurfaced in the museum’s holdings in 1950, five years after the end of World War II, but that the museum “made no efforts to contact or return the Paintings to Mondrian’s successors in interest.” By 1954, some of the works were allegedly being listed in the museum’s inventory.
Four of the Mondrian paintings remain in the museum’s collection, but the other four were “wrongfully sold or exchanged” in the early 1950s “in violation of the British military law that governed Krefeld at the time,” according to the suit. The four works, the suit states, were either exchanged for or their proceeds were used to purchase as many as 30 other artworks, including ones by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, and Paul Klee.