More than a century after she sat for a portrait by Henri Matisse, Greta Moll is still an object of desire.

Portrait of Greta Moll by Henri Matisse.
Portrait of Greta Moll by Henri Matisse.
Source: Rowland & Petroff
The National Gallery in London was sued in the U.S. by three of her grandchildren who claim the museum wrongfully acquired the 1908 portrait, decades after the work by the famed French artist was allegedly stolen in the wake of World War II.
Moll, who had been a student of Matisse’s, died in 1977 without ever knowing what became of the painting. Two years after her death, the museum bought the work from a London gallery for an undisclosed sum. The grandchildren sued for $30 million.
The National Gallery ignored the red flag that the work had been transferred to a gallery in New York immediately after the war, according to the suit filed Wednesday in Manhattan federal court. The museum, aware of the legacy of stolen art from the war, never asked Moll’s family members in U.K. how she’d lost the painting, they said.
"In many such cases where war-related looting and other losses occurred, the possessors of such property eventually did the right thing and returned the lost artworks," Oliver Williams, Margarete Green and Iris Filmer, who are cousins, said in the complaint in federal court in Manhattan. "The National Gallery has ignored the international legal standard."
The National Gallery’s press office said it had received the complaint and declined to comment.
Paintings and other artworks by European masters have been at the center of numerous international legal disputes, usually over claims they were stolen by Nazis from wealthy Jews who were robbed of their possessions or murdered in the Holocaust. The cases have often pitted aggrieved descendants against famous dealers and art institutions that may have inadvertently come into possession of stolen works.

Matisse Students

Moll sat for Matisse while she and her husband Oskar were his students in Paris, according to the suit. Oskar Moll bought the painting from Matisse before he and Greta moved back to Germany to teach and sculpt, the family members say. The work, known simply as "Portrait of Greta Moll," came to be regarded as a masterpiece of Matisse’s fauve period, and it was hung prominently in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan in a 1931 Matisse retrospective, according to the suit.
As the Nazis rose to power, the Molls came to be regarded as degenerates and “Bolshevist," according to the suit. In 1933, Oskar Moll was fired from his job as a professor at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art, while one of Greta Moll’s sculptures was included in the 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich, according to the complaint.
By 1944, as the war raged, Greta Moll watched her home in Berlin burn to the ground after an Allied attack. But by then she’d moved the painting and other valuables to a friend’s house outside the city. Oskar Moll, who nearly starved to death during the conflict, died in 1947, according to the suit. Greta Moll, left as the sole owner of the painting, believed it was still in danger after Germany fell to the Allies and decided to move it outside the country altogether before she moved to the U.K. to live with her daughter’s family in Wales, according to the suit.
"In order to protect the painting from the danger of looting by Allied troops and in particular from Russian troops who were known to have looted artworks and other valuables, they decided to have it sent to Switzerland for deposit with an acquainted art dealer for safekeeping," according to the complaint.
Moll entrusted the painting to an art student who was supposed to secure it in Switzerland, but the student sold the painting instead and fled to the Middle East, according to the suit. The work was then sold in 1949 to a gallery in New York, Knoedler & Co., which is now closed. The gallery should have been aware that the Molls were the actual owners because they were listed as such when the painting was hung in the Museum of Modern Art 18 years earlier, according to the suit.

True Owner