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Heirs file complex international lawsuit in art case

Art can be a complex asset to hold in an estate. Not only are there questions of value ranges, but art has a storied past when it comes to estate law. The international legal community even has a soft precedent for handling cases of questionable art ownership when it comes to heirs finding long-lost paintings belonging to an estate.

In many cases, current owners -- especially museums or public galleries -- will return artwork to proper owners if ownership can be documented. This is especially true of works that changed hands in questionable fashion during or just after World War II, when a lot of art was taken from Jews by Nazis. One recent case seems to have ignored precedent, however, and heirs are filing suit in the United States because they likely won't have luck in their home country.

The case involves a painting of Greta Moll by artist Henri Matisse. Moll was reportedly the original owner, but she did not know what happened to the painting, which was done in 1908. She died in 1977 without ever knowing. The painting later showed up in the National Gallery in another country.

During the war, Moll and her husband were living in Germany, but they were considered to be Bolshevists, making them and their belongings potential targets. Moll moved some of her items around, and after her Berlin-based home burned down, she decided to secure the painting in Switzerland. She sent a student to handle this task, but he instead sold the painting and disappeared.

Since that time, the ill-gotten work has made its way through several owners before arriving at the National Gallery in Britain, where a law forbids the museum from dispensing of art within its collection. This is why the heirs have opted to file suit alongside a U.S.-based charity that has some ties to Molls' estate. As you can see, the issues are very complex. While most heirs don't deal with stolen art and international law, estate planning and administration are often complex, which is why it's a good idea to seek professional assistance.

Source: Bloomberg, "Greta Moll’s Heirs Say Stolen Portrait Is at London Museum," Erik Larson and Katya Kazakina, Sep. 07, 2016

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