Trustees Sue German Museum Collective Kunstmuseen Krefeld to Recover Piet Mondrian Paintings Lost During WWII

October 20, 2020
Herrick, Feinstein LLP

The Trustees of The Elizabeth McManus Holtzman Irrevocable Trust (the “Trustees”) filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on October 15, 2020 seeking recovery of four paintings by the renowned Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (the “Mondrian Four”). The Mondrian Four are estimated to be worth more than $200 million and are wrongfully in the possession of the Defendant, Kunstmuseen Krefeld, a collective of art museums that includes the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum. The Trustees also seek relief for Kunstmuseen Krefeld’s wrongful sale or exchange of four additional Mondrian paintings previously in its custody. The Trust holds the remainder of the estate of the Trustees’ deceased father, Harry Holtzman, who was Mondrian’s sole heir.

The Complaint relates the story of how Mondrian’s eight paintings came to be in the custody of Kunstmuseen Krefeld. Mondrian, regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, created the eight paintings in the 1920’s. He was asked to loan the paintings for a major exhibition that was planned to start at Kunstmuseen Krefeld’s Kaiser Wilhelm Museum. Consequently, in 1929, the paintings were sent to the museum for that purpose, but the exhibition never took place. Nevertheless, the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum continued to hold the paintings in its custody and control.

In 1933, the Nazi regime was established in Germany, and embarked on a program designed to purge Germany of so-called “degenerate art”, i.e., modern artworks like Mondrian’s paintings. During the war, the Nazis installed a succession of directors to run the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum and the paintings only escaped their hands because they were not included in the museum’s inventory during the period of Nazi control. Mondrian, designated as “degenerate” and targeted by the Nazi regime, fled to London in 1938. Then, with the help of his sponsor and close friend, Harry Holtzman, the Trustees’ deceased father and Mondrian’s sole heir, Mondrian fled to New York in 1940. Mondrian died shortly thereafter in 1944, believing that his paintings were lost to him forever.

The Complaint alleges that, after WWII, the paintings resurfaced at the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, and the museum wrongfully sold or exchanged four of them for other artworks. In addition to seeking recovery of the Mondrian Four, the Trustees are also claiming the artworks that were exchanged for, or purchased with the proceeds of the sale of, the Mondrian paintings, which include artworks by Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso. As the Complaint alleges, Kunstmuseen Krefeld engaged in a continuous policy or practice of deception to hide from the Trustees the paintings and information related to the paintings that might lead to their discovery; and this conduct prevented the Trustees from learning of their right, title and interest in and to the paintings. Only after extensive research by Monika Tatzkow, a German provenance researcher, and Gunnar Schnabel, a German attorney who specializes in restitution matters, were the Trustees able to learn of their ownership of the paintings and make a demand for the return of the Mondrian Four. Kunstmuseen Krefeld, however, refused to return them and account for the wrongful sale or exchange of the other four Mondrian paintings, as the Complaint also alleges.

While the Trustees first attempted to resolve this dispute out of court, Kunstmuseen Krefeld rejected their claims, and they have been compelled to take legal action to enforce their rights.

The Trustees are represented by the Art Law Group of Herrick, Feinstein LLP in New York and Cooley, LLP in Washington, D.C.