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Seattle Art Museum sues New York dealers Knoedler

The heirs of Parisian dealer Paul Rosenberg demand the return of a Matisse stolen during World War II

New York

The search in the US for art pillaged by the Nazis in World War II has taken an odd twist. The heirs of the Parisian dealer Paul Rosenberg have sued the Seattle Art Museum for the return of a 1928 Matisse “Odalisque” valued at $2 million that the family says was looted from a bank vault by the Nazis and then bartered into the market.

The museum concedes that the painting was indeed part of the Rosenbergs’ collection and is suing Knoedler, the New York dealer that sold it to the Seattle collector Prentice Bloedel in 1954. Yet despite growing public concern about war loot in Seattle, the museum refuses to hand the Matisse over to the Rosenbergs until Knoedler accepts the validity of the Rosenbergs’ claim.

The “Odalisque” was one work among dozens that Rosenberg stored in a vault at Banque Nationale pour le Commerce et l’Industrie in Libourne, near Bordeaux, in 1940. The Nazis seized the picture in 1941 and, according to documents filed by the Rosenbergs in this case, took the picture in 1942 to the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, where the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the Nazi art confiscation agency, allegedly traded it and two other works to the dealer Gustave Rochlitz for a Fontainebleau School “Three Graces”.

The picture is then thought to have either been stolen or sold into the trade, and ultimately sold by the gallery Drouant-David to Knoedler & Co. in 1954. Knoedler sold it to Prentice Bloedel, a lumber baron, later in 1954.

According to the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) press office, Knoedler representatives assured Bloedel that the picture was in the hands of the Matisse family before it went to the gallery. In fact, say SAM’s lawyers, the picture belonged to the Rosenbergs, and Knoedler knew that. No one has accused the Bloedel family of knowing that the picture had been looted, although the Rosenbergs charge that the Bloedels “did not take reasonable and prudent steps to determine its provenance.” The same lawyers now charge SAM with holding the picture hostage.

Seattle received a 50% ownership of the work at Victoria Bloedel’s death in 1991 and in 1996, when Prentice Bloedel died, the museum took full ownership of the work. The Bloedel heirs are museum trustees and prominent art collectors in Seattle.

The Rosenbergs first became aware that the picture was in the Seattle Museum last October, after the Seattle donor’s granddaughter noticed a reproduction of the painting in the Lost museum, a study of the pillaging of French Jewish collections by the journalist Hector Feliciano. The family began negotiating with the museum and the dispute appeared well on its way to resolution. But, according to a museum spokesman, Knoedler refused to cooperate. Without Knoedler’s involvement, the museum declined to negotiate bilaterally with the Rosenbergs, and talks halted in July.

“We want to do the right thing, but this is a valuable asset”, insisted Mimi Gates Gardner, SAM’s director, who was a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD) task force dealing with art looted during the Holocaust period.

The museum guidelines, announced by task force chairman Philippe de Montebello of the Metropolitan Museum in Worcester Massachusetts on 2 June, discouraged resolving disputes by litigation and opposed national legislation to require all art buyers to research the provenance of the works that acquired.

The current three-way lawsuit is just the kind of legal tangle that Mimi Gates’s colleagues at the AAMD had dreaded. Mr Gates could have a serious public relations problem, since her museum is perceived to be stalling while the aged daughter and daughter-in-law of Paul Rosenberg wait to recover her father’s painting and pay expensive lawyers to prod the museum into returning the picture. After all, critics say, the museum has only “owned” the painting for two years. Moreover, in this context, $2 million may seem to be a triflingly small sum. Mrs Gates is married to William Gates Jr, the father of the world’s richest man and founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates. Gates père et fils have been SAM benefactors.

Legal comment

Where does the Seattle Museum stand?

The museum’s third-party complaint—an action by which a defendant sues another party for damages in the event it is held liable—raises an important legal question: can a museum which is given an artwork under a will sue the prior seller if a defect in the donor’s title is found? Stuart Dunwoody, of the Seattle law firm Davis Wright Tremain, said that the museum’s claims against Knoedler are based on its status as legatee of the Bloedel estates. Two of the claims, for breach of warranty of title, are contractual claims. The museum’s claims for negligent misrepresentation and fraud are tort claims stemming from the same transaction. But Lewis Clayton, of the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, representing Knoedler, challenged the museum’s claim. “I don’t know of a case in which a court has ever credited the notion that these warranties are passed down like family heirlooms”, he told The Art Newspaper. “I don’t think the museum has the right to assert a claim against Knoedler, because we did not deal with the museum.” Knoedler sold the Matisse to the Bloedels for roughly $18,000 in 1954. The painting is now claimed to be worth millions, and if the museum loses the painting, it wants Knoedler to pay current value. If the museum does succeed to the Bloedel’s claims, key questions would be the effect of the statute of limitations and damages. Mr Clayton disputed the facts outlined in the museum’s complaint, saying the gallery had “acted perfectly appropriately” when it sold the painting in 1954.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 85 October 1998