A recent article in The New York Times described a lawsuit filed by the heirs of the artist Piet Mondrian to recover the painting “Composition with Blue” from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The heirs claim that Mondrian never lost title to the painting, reportedly worth at least $100 million, because it was confiscated by the Nazis as “degenerate art” and later sold.
Mondrian died in 1944, leaving his entire estate to his close friend, the artist Harry Holtzman. The plaintiffs are Holtzman’s three children. The museum contends that it got the work in 1943 and questions why the heirs waited so long to ask for its return. This situation is a bit unusual, says Sherri Cohen, head of Business Development at Bonhams in New York City, in that it’s the heirs of the artist who are seeking its return, rather than the heirs of a prior owner of the artwork.
This isn’t the first lawsuit filed by the heirs for return of paintings. According to ARTNews, in 2020, the heirs also sued the Kunstmuseen Krefeld in Germany for the return of four other paintings worth over $200 million, which the heirs claimed were loaned to the museum and never returned. The artworks were thought to be lost, but they resurfaced.
These types of claims for artwork confiscated by the Nazis during World War II aren’t uncommon and have varying degrees of success, says Cohen. She notes that buyer beware caveats apply when there’s a gap in provenance history between 1933 and1945 and the work may have been in Continental Europe. Purchasers of this type of artwork should always practice robust due diligence.