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International lawsuit over inherited art

Numerous types of estate property can spark long trails of paperwork and interesting stories, and art that has changed hands over the years often leads to this type of tale. Currently, one group of American heirs is filing a lawsuit, seeking the return of a painting that is housed in a museum in another country.

The painting is a portrait of Greta Moll painted in 1908 by Henri Matisse. Moll and her husband owned the painting during the first part of the 20th century, and it hung in their home in Germany. During World War II, however, Moll and her husband were considered degenerates by the Nazi regime and she feared that her painting would be stolen or damaged as some of their other possessions were. She entrusted it to one of her art students, who was supposed to carry it to safety in another country.

The art student instead sold the painting, which has since had a long and storied ownership. The painting eventually showed up in America where it was owned by a collector. That collector later sold it to a different international collector, and the work was displayed in a gallery overseas. In 1979, the painting was sold to the museum where it current resides.

Having uncovered the location of the painting after all these years, the heirs are suing for its return. They note that the museum should have better vetted the artwork because the exchange of hands immediately after WWII is a known red flag in the art world. Art that found its way to new owners during that time was often looted or stolen from its rightful owners.

This case is interesting, because it is an illustration of American estate law coming up against the art and museum laws of another country. While most heirs won't deal with such issues, you might need a legal remedy to a problem of ownership of assets. Working with a probate law professional can help you understand what your options are in any such case.

Source: Artnet News, "Heirs of a Matisse Subject Sue National Gallery London for Return of Allegedly Stolen Portrait," Brian Boucher, Sep. 09, 2016

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