Heirs of Dutch Artist Piet Mondrian Sue the Philadelphia Museum of Art Over $100 Million Painting

The heirs of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian have sued the Philadelphia Museum of Art for ownership of Mondrian’s painting Composition with Blue (1926), which they claim was wrongfully donated to the museum after being looted by the Nazis.

According to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s provenance, Composition with Blue was stolen from a museum in Hanover, Germany by the National Socialist authorities in 1937. It had been entrusted to the museum by a prominent art dealer to whom the canvas was consigned by the artist in 1927. In 1939, the painting was acquired by an American art collector from a gallery in New York known for its collection of “degenerate” artworks trafficked by the Nazis. The collector displayed the piece in the Gallery of Living Art at New York University and in 1952, donated it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The museum, which has held the painting for nearly 70 years, asserted that Mondrian never objected to the collector’s ownership or display of the painting. Mondrian died in New York in 1944.

The complaint states that both Mondrian and the executor and sole heir to his estate, Harry Holtzman, died before learning that they had any recourse for recovering the painting. However, the museum has denied that the painting was acquired illegitimately and asserted that Holtzman did not challenge the painting’s ownership in the 43 years between Mondrian’s death and his own.

The museum has restored looted artwork in the past. In June 2021, the museum’s board unanimously approved the return of an Italian “pageant shield” to the Czech Republic after it collaborated with historians in the Czech Republic to confirm the history and provenance of the shield. 

In a statement, the museum said that there is “no legitimate claim… In fact, the painting was purchased by A.E. Gallatin, a friend of the painter’s, who, with Mondrian’s full knowledge and continuous support displayed it publicly. Mondrian even volunteered to restore the work for Gallatin and expressed great pleasure with Gallatin’s stewardship of the painting.”

The complaint was filed on December 10 in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.

Additional Reading

Mondrian Heirs Sue Philadelphia Museum, Claiming Painting Was Looted by Nazis, ARTnews (December 13, 2021)

Mondrian’s Heirs Are Suing the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a $100 Million Painting They Claim Was Stolen by the Nazis, Artnet (December 13, 2021)

Heirs Sue to Claim Mondrian Painting in Philadelphia Museum of Art, The New York Times (December 13, 2021)

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