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