10 October 2016

Deconstructing the Jeu de Paume

by Marc Masurovsky

The process of understanding what exactly unfolded at the Jeu de Paume museum in German-occupied Paris between late 1940 and July 1944 has been in the works for close to a decade.

Jeu de Paume in 1861

The Jeu de Paume museum, emptied of its contents because of the impending German entrance into Paris in 1940, became the  most important processing center for art objects looted by German and French agents from Jewish owners, mainly in the Paris area but also from sites throughout German-occupied France, and to a lesser extent from Belgium and the Netherlands. The collections seized in Belgium and the Netherlands represent but a fraction of what was removed from France and processed through the Jeu de Paume.

For four years the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) staff managed that processing center to which thousands of objects were brought in crates provided by Parisian moving companies.
Typical truck and crate operation at the Louvre

ERR staffers unpacked them, assessed their appearance, condition and importance. Based on their recommendations, these objects were catalogued, inventoried, carded, and either shipped to the Reich or handed over to other German agencies for sale through the Paris art market.

Many post-WWII art restitution cases filed in Europe and in the United States are rooted in the events that transpired at the Jeu de Paume.

What is involved in the deconstruction of the Jeu de Paume?

The bulk of the reconstruction relies almost exclusively on a close examination of primary source documents which attest to the confiscation, transfer, stockpiling, inventorying, cataloguing, carding, and shipment of art objects which were forcibly removed from their Jewish owners.

These documents include, but are not limited to:

-Cards designed and filled out by ERR staffers describing the objects processed at the Jeu de Paume. These cards were also completed in other ERR centers

—in Brussels (Belgium), Fussen/Neuschwanstein (Bavaria, Germany), the Louvre (Paris, France). and Kogl (Austria).
ERR card describing a Rothschild item

-Inventories were produced by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) art specialists in Belgium, France, Germany, and Austria;

-the typewritten version of the handwritten notebooks compiled at great risk by Rose Valland, curator at the Jeu de Paume whose hierarchy asked her in effect to spy for them and document the hemorrhaging of “French cultural treasures” from their Jewish owners to various sites in Germany and Austria;

-restitution claims filed by surviving victims whose property was plundered by German agents between 1940 and 1944;

-wartime and postwar correspondence regarding the thefts authored by victims, perpetrators and witnesses;

-reports compiled by Allied intelligence agencies documenting acts of cultural plunder, including investigations into the actions of specific officials like Hermann Goering, Bruno Lohse, Robert Scholz;

-French police reports detailing their raids on Jewish-owned businesses and residences in close cooperation with German agents;

-records of French anti-Jewish agencies (Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives) responsible (and competing against the ERR) for confiscating Jewish-owned property and facilitating the Aryanization of their businesses.

The ERR staff photographed a number of the confiscated objects. Not all of the objects carded and inventoried were photographed. These photographs are scattered about in various archives throughout Europe—Belgium, France, and Germany. Our task is to reunite them with the corresponding datasets. Their quality varies significantly based on the circumstances under which the photos were taken.

One set of photographs was taken rather crudely in 1940 and 1941. 
Marais aux songes, Max Ernst
 The objects were placed on an easel, a handwritten label identified the alphanumeric code assigned to the object by the ERR, and the object was photographed together with the easel. In other words, the first photographs were produced amateurishly and did not reflect a coordinated policy of treatment of the confiscated objects. Once the Jeu de Paume operation was rationalized and structured under the guidance of Bruno Lohse and other art specialists of the ERR, the photographs took on a more professional quality, often printed on high-end photographic paper.

The official tally reported by French and Germany officials of the number of objects processed at the Jeu de Paume is slightly above 21000. This figure, which I rounded off, has been oft-repeated since 1945 and comes from the official records of the ERR itself and was confirmed by Rose Valland and other French officials after 1945.

The deconstruction of the Jeu de Paume has managed to challenge that official figure upwards and, by so doing, to clarify its meaning.

The 21000 or so objects that were “carded” by the ERR staff in its various depots throughout Europewere objects that the staff considered more from an esthetic viewpoint than an ideological viewpoint. After all, if Nazi ideology had dominated the judgment of the ERR staff, thousands of objects would not have been inventoried or carded because of their “unworthiness” and, therefore, the official figure would have been much lower.

The number itself is low and does not reflect accurately the true extent of the thefts of Jewish-owned cultural assets and the proportion of those assets which entered and left the Jeu de Paume.

Of note are the crates which contained confiscated items. The crates are the most important forensic measure of the actual number of objects which entered the Jeu de Paume from late 1940 to late July 1944. Crates were often assembled in the places of confiscation by the Parisian movers, they contained the fruits of the plunder. They were transported as such in trucks supplied by Parisian moving and storage companies to the Louvre and Jeu de Paume.

Their contents are not always provided in the available documentation. Hence, the Jeu de Paume database can only list the crates, the time at which they entered the Jeu de Paume and exited therefrom.

As of now, there are more than 33,000 datasets in the ERR database, each containing information on at least one object. Several thousand datasets pertain exclusively to crates and their contents, exclusive of the individual objects listed in the database. In other words, these crates contained objects that the ERR did not bother to inventory and/or card for reasons that are not yet clear.

The close examination of Rose Valland’s notes on the contents of crates passing through the Jeu de Paume is the closest that we will ever get to grasping the full extent of the Jeu de Paume operation, the number of collections that were processed there, and the fate of the objects contained therein both during and after WWII.

Crate inventory (partial)
In order of magnitude, the cards, when tabulated,  bring the total number of objects at the Jeu de Paume close to 21000. The inventories of the various collections processed at the Jeu de Paume provide a more accurate but not complete snapshot of the number of objects confiscated from individual Jewish owners. The total number of objects listed in the inventories brings us closer to 30,000 objects. If we add the crates with objects not tabulated in the cards or the inventories, the total number of objects could far exceed 40,000. And finally, the inventories of losses submitted by victims of Nazi and Vichy-sponsored plunder, when confronted with the German inventories, more often than not, contain far more objects than the German inventories. Hence, if we factor in the objects listed on victim inventories which were not carded or inventoried or listed in the description of crate contents, we must ask: where did those objects go since the apartments, mansions, estates, galleries and other sites containing those objects were virtually gutted of all their contents.

Once we reach the end of this exercise, we will be able to provide a more accurate picture of the scope and detail of the cultural plunder of Jewish victims of Nazi occupation and Vichy rule in France.

The process is long and painstaking, but it fulfills a vital mission: to understand the crime of cultural plunder, to document the confiscations, understand the path taken by the various objects during and after the war, and to paint a more complex picture of Nazi cultural policy in occupied territories, the impact of that policy on the art market, and the postwar fate of the objects removed by force from their owners’ possession.

This project is currently funded by the New York-based Conference of Jewish Material Claims against Germany (better known as the Claims Conference) as a joint project with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

The information on the Jeu de Paume can be found at www.errproject.org.

09 October 2016

Prisoners of war

by Marc Masurovsky

In late January 2014, Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, declared that art objects stolen from Jews “are the last prisoners of WWII”. He asked that they be returned to their rightful owners.  Two years later, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June 2016 in support of the so-called HEAR Act, S.2763, Ronald Lauder emphasized, rightly or wrongly, that this proposed bill would help return looted works of art, “the final prisoners of World War II,” to their rightful owners.

This is not the first time that we’ve heard art objects being compared to prisoners of war. The analogy, wittingly or not, produces a misconception as to the nature of the thefts of art objects from Jews and distorts the chronology of events surrounding cultural plunder at the hands of the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. It is a recent notion which may have its roots in the “Spoils of War” conference organized by Elizabeth Simpson in 1995 in collaboration with the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative arts.”

The “Spoils of War” conference came on the heels of disclosures that important works of art thought to be missing at the end of WWII had resurfaced in the former Soviet Union. The trove which a shocked world discovered was described by some as the "last prisoners of World War II," citing Karl E. Meyer’s Editorial Notebook: Russia's Hidden Attic; Returning the Spoils of World WarII, (N.Y. TIMES, Feb. 1, 1995, p. A20). Meyer, a journalist for the New York Times, was referring to important French Impressionist paintings that had been deemed lost in the wreckage of WWII only to reappear in an exhibit at the Hermitage. In an unforgettable display of nationalistic and cultural arrogance, Soviet authorities flaunted their prized “takings”, the result of massive sweeps of works and objects of art by so-called Trophy Brigades operating in areas “liberated” by the Red Army in the months leading up to the end of WWII. The Soviets viewed these “treasures” as “reparations” for the staggering losses in lives, equipment, cultural objects and infrastructure that they had suffered at the hands of Nazis and their collaborators. [Cited by Seth A. Stuhl, Spoils of War? A Solution to the Hermitage Trove Debate , 18 J. Int'l L. 409 (2014).

Since 1995, the expression has been re-appropriated time and time again mostly in the form of catchy titles as a mis-characterization of the full dimension and scope of cultural plunder during the Nazi era (1933-1945). Some of the many authors, mostly legal experts, who used the expression:

1997: Margaret M. Mastroberardino, The Last Prisoners of World War II, 9 Pace Int'l L. Rev. 315 (1997)

2002 Emily J. Henson, The Last Prisoners of War: Returning World War II Art to Its Rightful Owners— Can Moral Obligations Be Translated into Legal Duties?, 51 DEPAUL L. REV. 1103, 1105

2004, Geri J. Yonover, NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE: The "Last Prisoners of War" 1: Unrestituted Nazi-Looted Art Fall, 2004 6 J.L. & Soc. Challenges 81

2006 Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, "A Silesian Crossroads for Europe’s Displaced Books: Compensation or Prisoners of War?"  

A world-renown authority on Nazi looting of archives, libraries and books, Dr. Patricia Kennedy Grimsted has often referred to looted books and archives as “prisoners of WWII, held captive by recipient nations as “compensation” or “reparations.”

2010, Jessica Grimes, "Forgotten Prisoners of War: Returning Nazi-Looted Art by Relaxing the National Stolen Property Act ," Roger Williams University Law Review: Vol. 15: Iss. 2, Article 4.

2011, Maria Liberatrice Vicentini, manager of the Nucleo Conservazione Archivio Siviero, suggested that unrestituted works of art should be viewed as “prisoners of war.”

2014, Jessica Schubert, "Prisoners of War: Nazi-Era Looted Art and the Need for Reform in the United States," Touro Law Review: Vol. 30: No. 3, Article 10.

Although these “prisoners of WWII” are universally associated with the former Soviet Union, one can easily argue that they exist in most countries involved in the Second World War, which received untold numbers of cultural items with no provenance that they simply “hung on to”. They rationalized their presence in State collections and warehouses in the same manner as Soviet officials did and their successors in the newly independent nations forged out of the former Soviet Socialist Republics—Russia, Ukraine, Belarus—and their close neighbors in the rest of Eastern Europe. Proof being in the pudding, however, in the absence of coherent, systematic, inventories and audits of such holdings in the aforementioned nations, we can only continue to speculate wildly about the true numbers of these “prisoners.”


Let’s give credit where credit is due. The late Elan Steinberg was a major force behind the WJC’s many advocacy campaigns of the 1990s In 1998, he called unrestituted looted art "the last prisoners of war."  In November 1998, the WJC reiterated its assertion that looted paintings by Matisse, Chagall and Fernand Léger residing in French museum collections as “orphans” waiting to be returned to “loving parents” were in fact “the last prisoners of war” and they should be “freed.” .

Unless anyone protests, we will award to Elan Steinberg paternity for the expression, which Ron Lauder must have adopted since then. Still, the expression is laden with misconceptions.

Prisoners of war are people, and like with “orphaned” works, we tend to give human shape to objects and assign them sentient qualities which allows us to compare with them with individuals who have been captured in combat or in a battle zone and subjected to forced internment, confinement, and imprisonment by a hostile force. A prisoner of war is usually a member of the military or an agency affiliated with the one of the branches of a country’s armed forces and taken into custody by the “enemy.”

Prisoners of war are usually released at the end of the conflict that provoked their capture. They can also be exchanged for enemy prisoners. In principle, they have rights covered by international agreements, like the Geneva Convention.

Not to be flip, but can all of the aforementioned be applied to cultural objects being held “against their will” by a country which has no designated right to hold them and whose responsibility, at least its ethical or moral responsibility, is to return them to their rightful owners?

Furthermore, a prisoner of war has to be captured during a period of active military conflict. The looting of art objects under Nazi rule began in 1933, six years before the eruption of military conflict on the European continent. Theoretically, the expression “prisoner of war” cannot apply to any art object which was misappropriated, confiscated, plundered or otherwise stolen from its rightful owner prior to the outbreak of war, in other words, during the six-year period of 1933-1939.

Mountain out of a mole hill? Historical accuracy is important and the use of rhetoric to score political points is so widespread as to constitute an epidemic of sorts and therefore cannot be controlled by conventional methods. Only through education and awareness raising can the record be corrected. Art objects, once again, are not people and do not share their characteristics. They have no will of their own. They might symbolize events that extend far beyond their intended purpose as a result of their twisted or disrupted ownership histories. But they cannot—and should not-- be compared to people held against their will behind bars or barbed wire. If people insist on analogizing unrestituted art objects with “prisoners of war”, then it would be more useful to compare them to US soldiers listed as “MIA-Missing in Action” whose return has been elusive since the end of the Vietnam War.

Where does that get us? Nowhere.

08 October 2016


by Marc Masurovsky

Historian Lisa Leff pointed out in her recent book, “The Archive Thief,” how, in the late 1940s, the leadership of the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR) compared identifiable books recovered in former Nazi-held territories in the aftermath of WWII to “kidnapped children.” According to Rabbi Bernard Heller, the “theoretical” restitution” of these “kidnapped children” would be akin to reuniting them with their “overjoyed parents”. For those cultural assets that could not be matched with an identifiable owner, these “stunned waifs” would be placed in “foster homes” run by “loving foster parents.” As it turns out, these “abductees” ended up in a complex network of “foster homes” happy as pie to become the new “[foster] parents.” These new “homes” consist of museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions, State-controlled and/or private, Jewish and non-Jewish around the world.

The JCR was tasked with redistributing among Jewish communities worldwide (mostly in the United States, Europe and Palestine/Israel) those cultural objects bearing no obvious markings that might tie them to an owner. In their zeal, even objects that could have been reunited with rightful owners were treated as “waifs.”

Decades later, European governments explained how they treated Jewish-owned assets in the post-Holocaust world and if they had made any effort to return them or make them available to their owners or next of kin. For example, the Swedish authorities issued a report in 1997 on “orphaned” assets located in Swedish financial and other institutions. To them “orphaned” meant that assets had remained “unclaimed” for decades following the end of the Holocaust.  In Greece, “orphaned” property was transferred to an organization responsible for aiding needy survivors, most likely with the proceeds from liquidating such “orphaned” assets.  The same scenario also unfolded in countries like Austria and France with greater or lesser success.

In 2008, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem staged an exhibit called “Orphaned Art: Looted Art from the Holocaust at the Israel Museum.” More than 1200 “orphaned” items are catalogued at the Israel Museum. The Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO) was the main collector of these cultural “orphans”. It operated in post-WWII Germany and Austria to locate, identify and disperse objects tagged as Jewish-owned, mostly without an identifiable owner to whom to return the found objects. The JCR was its redistribution arm.

Marilyn Henry, who wrote a regular column for the Jerusalem Post before her untimely death in  2011, argued that these “orphans” should be transferred to European Jewish cultural institutions since they came from European nations subjected to Nazi rule and terror. She mentioned how Benjamin Ferencz, the noted former chief prosecutor at the International Military Tribunal of Nuremberg, described recipients of “orphaned” assets as their new owners, rather than their trustees or custodians.
In other words, the new “parents” held clear title to these cultural “orphans.” Ferencz’s comment could be interpreted as a clear rebuke to any attempt by claimants, relatives of the unfortunate “parents”, to obtain restitution of these “objects”, in other words, reuniting them with their “families.”

Throughout the post-1945 era, museums, libraries and other cultural institutions have been transformed into massive “foster” homes for “orphaned” objects. In line with Ferencz’s comment, one can understand more clearly how Jewish museums around the world have been reluctant, remiss and even hostile to the idea of restituting any of the “orphans” that they lovingly curate and nurture as “foster parents.” Even the US Library of Congress played dumb in the late 1990s when faced with the evidence that they held at least a thousand valuable books spanning three centuries of noted Jewish authorship which it had obtained after WWII.

The London-based European Commission on Looted Art (ECLA) has described “orphaned” works as having no prior ownership history. If we adapt that line of thought liberally and argue that any cultural object is an “orphan” whose previous ownership history is non-existent, the vast majority of cultural objects currently sitting in cultural institutions worldwide or being offered for sale by auction houses across the globe should be dubbed as “orphans” in want of their “parents” due to the sheer absence of a provenance that describes their history. Surely, we cannot accuse the art world of being so cruel and insensitive, can we?

Incidentally, and this might be completely irrelevant, the US Senate considered a bill in 2008 referred to as the “Orphan Art Bill” which would regulate how copyrighted images can be used whose owners cannot be located. A law addressing similar issues was passed in the United Kingdom in 2013. Without getting in too deep into a legal swamp, users of copyrighted orphan works would not be penalized in their use and reuse of such images as long as they had been diligent in seeking out the purported owners of the images.  However, the US Copyright office noted recently that “the ownership status of orphan works does not serve the objectives of the copyright system. For good faith users, orphan works are a frustration, a liability risk, and a major cause of gridlock in the digital marketplace.”

Can the same reasoning be applied to cultural objects “orphaned” as a result of genocidal policies? Should we view cultural “orphans” as a liability risk? Not if we accept the Ferencz verdict of clear title to these objects.

And yet…

If we do generously apply that reasoning to cultural assets “orphaned” as a result of the violence that cost the lives of six million individuals of Jewish descent, we would have to question the level of diligence exerted by new “owners” (according to Ferencz) of “orphaned” cultural assets. In most cases, such diligence has not even been a consideration simply because the reigning assumption amongst the new “foster parents” was that the rightful owners had perished and not left any relatives who could become the new “parents” of these “orphaned” assets.

These poor “orphans” are routinely sold and resold through bookstores, antique shops, galleries, auction houses, Jewish and not, thus bouncing from one “loving foster parent” to another. If Rabbi Heller’s analogy holds, the treatment of these “orphans” constitutes systemic abuse and grievous neglect under the guise of providing a “good home” to those “waifs”.

Let’s face it, no systematic effort has been made in the past 80 years to find the “parents.”

You do know that objects are not people, something that, ironically, officials of Holocaust memorial institutions and even Jewish groups explain when they justify why they do not focus on cultural claims or include acts of plunder and misappropriation in their exhibits and educational programs. Isn’t it twisted irony that those responsible for the relocation and redistribution of “orphaned” objects grounded their arguments in anthropomorphic language to emphasize the humanitarian and profoundly sensitive motivations underlying their mission—to find new homes for the cultural wreckage of the Holocaust? Little did we know that these metaphors eliminated any possibility of viewing restitution as a viable solution to the fate of our “waifs”.

02 October 2016

"Portrait of Greta Moll," by Henri Matisse

Portrait of Greta Moll
by Marc Masurovsky

[Editor's note and caveat: this article brings together the major articles which appeared in the international press concerning the restitution claim filed against the National Gallery of London by the heirs of Greta Moll.  If there are any misrepresentations of the facts, I assume full responsibility for them. The purpose of this article is to understand and raise questions about the itinerary of the painting before it reached the United States in 1949.  Some of the questions may seem self-evident or unnecessary but they are designed to flesh out possible explanations for the various twists and turns that the story of this Matisse painting borrowed especially between 1945 and 1949.]

In September 2016, the heirs of Oskar and Margarete "Greta" Moll, two German artists who had been persecuted by the Nazis, filed a lawsuit demanding the restitution of a “Portrait of Greta Moll,” which Henri Matisse had painted in 1908. The Molls had owned one of the most important German collections of paintings by Henri Matisse in the years preceding Nazi rule.  

The defendant in this case is the National Gallery of London. Greta’s husband, Oskar Moll, had been one of the early victims of Nazi purges in the academic, cultural and artistic world. The Nazi regime viewed their work as “degenerate” and Greta Moll’s sculptures were included in the now infamous 1937 Munich exhibit, the sole purpose of which was to debase the work of countless modern artists, Jewish and not. 

In 1944, after their house was destroyed,  the Molls sought refuge in the suburbs of Berlin so as to avoid the punishing air raids conducted by Allied bombers.

After the unconditional surrender of the Third Reich on May 8, 1945, the Molls found themselves in the Soviet sector of Berlin. Soviet “cultural policy” in liberated Berlin included the forced removal of whatever cultural and artistic objects and transferring to the Soviet Union, manu militari. Soviet military officials also conducted their own version of purges of “degenerate” art. The so-called Trophy Brigades helped implement this removal policy. Red Army troops “liberated” thousands of objects belonging to Berlin museums and to private collectors from storage facilities in the areas of Berlin that they had overrun. They organized the transfer of those objects to Soviet-run depots deep inside their zone of occupation for ultimate transport to the Soviet Union.

Oskar Moll, courtesy of artnet
In 1947, the Moll family decided to move out of the Soviet sector of Berlin while they still had a chance to. Their designated destination: Wales, where one of their daughters resided. Meanwhile, Oskar Moll died on 14 August 1947 in Berlin. Greta became the designated heiress to the portrait that Matisse had produced of her decades before. Some reports have characterized the painting as the “family’s only remaining asset.” The same reports portrayed Greta as living in fear of an export ban, which could only have been imposed by the Soviet military authorities. To forestall such an eventuality, she recruited Gertrud Djamarani, one of her husband’s former students, to “smuggle the painting" to Zurich and drop it off for safekeeping with a local art dealer, Heidi Vollmöller, the daughter of a wealthy textile executive. She ran a gallery and an auction house in Zurich.  The gallery has had a strong presence on the antiquities market.
"Greta" and Oskar Moll
Another report suggests that, for whatever reasons Greta might have conjured, “the painting was in danger.” This fear might have been prompted by prevailing Soviet cultural edicts severely restricting in their zone the ability of destitute individuals trapped in their zone to raise money or transfer their assets out of the Soviet sector. Artforum goes even further and argues that Greta Moll feared thefts and misdeeds by Allied troops, although if she was in the Soviet sector, she only had the Red Army or Soviet officials to fear, not the Western Allies.
Heidi Vollmoller

There is no sense in speculating why Greta Moll recruited Ms. Djamarani as the temporary custodian of the Matisse portrait. In any event, Ms. Djamarani made her way out of the Soviet Zone of Occupation with the Matisse painting and was able to cross the German-Swiss border with it. Impressive!

The story of the Matisse painting becomes a bit messy once the painting and its custodian enter Switzerland.

Reminder: The Second World War ended in May 1945 in the European Theater and in August 1945 in the Asian theater. Europe was officially liberated. There were no more Axis-sanctioned acts of plunder, no more confiscations by Nazi authorities. If there were seizures and confiscations, they were driven by other considerations at the hands of post-war authorities. The “Portrait of Greta Moll” was not confiscated by the Nazis. The Moll family was able to protect it throughout the entire National Socialist era, no small feat. Two years elapsed between the unconditional surrender of the Third Reich and Greta Moll’s transfer for safekeeping of the painting to Gertrud Djamarani and ultimately to the care of an art dealer, Heidi Vollmöller. Was the latter aware of Frau Moll’s intentions? Did she expect delivery of the painting with Gertrud Djamarani acting basically as a courier? Unclear.

Most press accounts confirm that Ms. Djamarani ran out of money in Switzerland. It’s not clear either how long or how quickly it took her to become destitute, how badly she needed money to begin with. Switzerland has always been and remains even today an expensive place in which to survive, especially in an opulent city like Zurich. Oskar Moll’s former student hung on to the painting long enough to perceive it as a valuable asset from which she could derive some badly needed funds. A highly unethical and, yes, criminal posture to adopt, but in the disastrous follow-up to WWII, millions of men, women, and children found themselves pauperized, doing anything to earn a living. Theft and other crimes as well were common occurrences across war-devastated Europe. Black markets operated on high octane, especially in cities like Munich and Berlin. Everything was available for a price as long as someone had money to pay for what you offered. Swiss art dealers benefited exponentially from such financial and societal distress, eager to buy low and sell high. That, however, does not excuse Ms. Djamarani’s behavior because it was plainly illegal.

Gertrud Djamarani used the Matisse painting which belonged to Greta Moll in order to obtain financial assistance from Heidi Vollmöller. . In doing so, did she pass herself off as the owner of the Matisse painting? Unclear. This also tells us that Ms. Vollmöller.  ight not have known that the painting’s true owner was Greta Moll and if she did, she became party to the crime. Moreover, she did not question the fact that an impoverished student coming from Berlin would be the proud owner of a well-executed portrait of a woman by Henri Matisse. There were plenty of dealers and collectors in Switzerland who would have given Ms. Djamarani good money for the painting and, more importantly, who would not have raised the origin of the painting as a precondition for a transaction. So, why did Ms. Djamarani focus solely on Ms. Vollmöller to obtain assistance? We don’t know. One other detail is worth considering at least for historical reasons. By 1947, after having been pummeled by the Western Allies since 1944 over their handling of looted assets belonging to Jewish victims, the Swiss authorities were especially vigilant to seize movable assets like the Matisse portrait in Ms. Djamarani’s possession which might enter Swiss territory by plane, train, road, or even on foot. How did Ms. Djamarani make it across the German-Swiss border without a detailed inspection of her belongings? If I had been her, I would have been sweating buckets.

We can all agree that Gertrud Djamarani’s behavior upon her arrival in Switzerland, was nothing short of problematic as well as that of the Zurich art dealer to whom she was supposed to entrust the painting. She used it as a vehicle to raise money for herself which probably financed her exit out of Switzerland.

Gertrud Djamarani ended up somewhere in the Near East, not the most peaceful region of the post-1945 world to relocate in especially as French and British colonial dominions were cracking at the seams amid generalized unrest fueled by rising pan-arab nationalistic fervor and Jewish desires to control their own territory and carve out a nation out of Palestine.

Heidi Vollmöller sold the painting without the consent of its rightful owner, Greta Moll. In 1949, the Matisse portrait reached the New York art market and ended up at the Knoedler gallery. From there it entered the collection of a Texan oil baron, then returned to Switzerland and finally ended up in London with Lefebvre which sold it to the National Gallery in 1979, two years after the death of Greta Moll.

In 2011, we learn that The National Gallery first became aware of the Moll heirs’ “interest in the painting” through an exchange of letters involving legal representatives.

We agree with Greta Moll’s heirs “that [the painting] was sold without permission after [Greta Moll] sent it to Switzerland for safekeeping.“ But the facts as they have been presented in the international press do not lead anyone to deduce that this case can even be considered as a “World War II art restitution case”.

David Rowland, a New York attorney involved in many Nazi-looted art cases and who represents the interests of the Moll heirs declared:
"We think that it is improper for public museums to hold misappropriated/stolen artworks in their collections and that there is both an ethical and legal obligation to return misappropriated/stolen art to its original owners and their heirs. The same principle of course applies even more so to art lost in the Nazi era and its immediate aftermath, as is the case here.”


The photo of Greta and Oskar Moll comes from the following website:

The image of Heidi Vollmöller is a portrait produced by Hans Purrmann. According to the website "the athenaeum-org", only the thumbnail can be reproduced. For more information, see