MoMA Returned a Chagall Painting With Links to the Nazis—and Got $4 Million for Giving It Back

In recent years, works of art that were taken by the Nazis have been returned to their rightful owners. But one case paints a complicated picture of such endeavors.

The Museum of Modern Art quietly returned Marc Chagall’s Over Vitebsk to the heirs of a Jewish gallery owner three years ago, The New York Times reported on Monday. In exchange, the museum received $4 million. And now one of the heirs is fighting in court with the restitution company that had helped him and his six family members get the artwork back.

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“You have a case which is not black and white,” James Palmer, the founder of the restitution company Mondex, told the Times. The deal “makes perfect sense given some of the questions that can’t be resolved,” he said.

The Chagall was once owned by a German gallery under the leadership of Francis Matthiessen, a Jewish dealer who fled the country in 1933. In 1934, the painting was given to a German bank connected to the Nazis, reportedly for “debt reduction,” according to the records on MoMA’s website. It was eventually sold to the museum in 1949, where it sat for decades before Mondex teamed up with Patrick Matthiessen, Francis’s son, to find art that had once belonged to his father’s gallery.

Matthiessen and Mondex were successful in getting Over Vitebsk returned to the Matthiessen family, but Matthiessen told The New York Times that the process was unpleasant. (Last year, the family sold the painting for $24 million.) In legal documents, Matthiessen has accused Mondex of breaching its contract, including the negotiation of the $4 million payment to MoMA without the heirs’ approval.

“They fought tooth and nail to the last ditch on giving this back,” Matthiessen said about the museum. MoMA declined to address the publication’s questions but said in a statement that it had “collaborated on extensive provenance research on the painting” with the family. It added that it had gotten a payment from them and that it would go toward a provenance research fund named after Francis Matthiessen.

For its part, Mondex has said in court papers that it followed all the terms of the agreement it had with the Matthiessen heirs. And Palmer defended MoMA to The New York Times, saying that he thought the return of the painting was a fair settlement. But like the subject of Over Vitebsk, which not everyone agrees on, the case isn’t so clear-cut.

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