Three grandchildren of the muse of Henri Matisse who attempted to sue London’s National Gallery for the return of a portrait of their grandmother or millions in compensation have lost their case in a New York court.

Oliver Williams (Kent), Margarete Green (East Yorkshire) and Iris Filmer (Germany) claimed the National Gallery ignored a ‘red flag’ indicating Matisse’s ‘Portrait of Greta Moll’ might have been stolen in the aftermath of World War II when it purchased the work in 1979. Contrary to their September 2016 claim, District Judge Valerie Caproni held the National Gallery was not required to return the painting under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The claimants had sought an expropriation exception to this Act according to which property taken in violation of international law is not subject to foreign immunity.

Unusually for an art restitution claim, the claimants admitted the 1908 work was not stolen from a Jewish victim of Nazi persecution. Instead, they argued it was the subject of an ‘illicit transfer’. According to their claim, Moll entrusted the work for safekeeping to Gertrude Djamarani, a former art student of her husband prior to her departure from Germany to the United Kingdom. Djamarani sold it to a Swiss dealer in violation of her instructions and absconded to the Middle East.

The painting passed through several collections including Manhattan’s scandal-ridden Knoedler & Co gallery and London’s Lefevre gallery before it was purchased by the National Gallery. Fighting the lawsuit ‘on behalf of the British people’ the National Gallery insisted the purchase was made ‘in good faith’ and that it was not obliged to return the painting if the theft was proved.

The claimants filed suit in New York as they argued the National Gallery has commercial interests in the United States and profited from the ‘war-related theft’ of the portrait through its display and merchandising. Rejecting the grandchildren’s claim for £22 million (US$30 million) in compensation, Judge Caproni held there was no violation of international law and that the commercial interests were irrelevant. ‘It was Djamarani, a private individual, who allegedly illegally converted the painting… No sovereign was responsible for the illegal conversion of the painting’, Caproni ruled.

Judge Caproni held the claimants suit was ‘inexcusably delayed’ as Moll’s relatives were aware the painting was in the National Gallery’s collection since at least the early 1980s. She rejected the claimants’ attempt to justify the late filing, ruling that ‘being overwhelmed by the prospect of bringing a lawsuit is not a rare and extraordinary circumstance’’.