Piet Mondrian, “Composition with Blue,” (1926), oil on canvas (courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Last Friday, December 10, Jason, Jackie, and Madalena McManus Holtzman, the non-filial heirs of Piet Mondrian, filed a lawsuit in Philadelphia County Court alleging the Philadelphia Museum of Art of the “wrongful possession” of Mondrian’s 1926 painting “Composition with Blue (Schilderij No. 1: Lozenge with 2 Lines and Blue)” — a work they value at $100 million.

Many years ago, the children of Elizabeth McManus Holtzman and 20th-century abstract artist Harry Holtzman — who are, by transitive property, also the heirs of Mondrian, who designated Harry as his heir — hired Gunnar Schnabel and Monika Tatzkow, art restitution experts, to research broad-ranging research on the provenance of various Mondrian works. “Composition with Blue” is not the first painting that they have determined to be in the legal ownership of Holtzman’s heirs; in 2020, they also sued the Kunstmuseen Krefeld in Germany over four paintings in their holdings, valued at over $200 million in total, after the independent researchers concluded that they should be instituted. This litigation remains ongoing.

In both cases, Mondrian’s works in question were looted by the Nazis during their notorious purge of “degenerate art” in the 1930s — which implicated Modern artists including Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch, and Paul Klee. During this period, more than 20,000 artworks were seized from German museums, many of them then sold by Nazi-appointed dealers to collectors around the world.

At just under two-feet-by-two-feet in size, the diamond-shaped “Composition with Blue” is an exemplar of Mondrian’s pared-down minimalism. It was painted in 1926 while Mondrian lived in Paris, where he worked for almost two decades before escaping the Nazis. Upon the completion of the painting, Mondrian consigned the piece to Sophie Küppers, an art dealer and collector. Küppers then loaned it to the director of what is today the Hanover Museum for safekeeping.

There the painting remained for approximately a decade. But after the Degenerate Art exhibition opened in Munich, showcasing around 600 cautionary artworks including a Mondrian painting that the Nazi regime deemed to be an “insult of German feeling” — and after the Nazis publicly compiled a list of degenerate artists that included Mondrian — “Composition with Blue” was seized from the Hanover Museum in August 1937.

The Nazis assigned the sale of this particular work to Karl Buchholz, renowned for being among four dealers commissioned by the Nazis to sell “degenerate art” to generate revenue for the party. He transferred the painting to an associate in New York, who sold it to the collector and artist Albert E. Gallatin. Gallatin, who was well-connected with literary and artistic modernists, ran the Museum of Living Art gallery in Manhattan. Upon purchasing Mondrian’s painting, Gallatin issued a press release announcing his acquisition and staged an exhibition of Mondrian’s work at the Museum of Living Art. The artist sent Gallatin a letter on December 6, 1939, in which he wrote, “I was very glad to hear about the exhibition that you arranged of my work, and that my Hannover-picture is so well placed now.”

In 1940, Mondrian left London for New York, sponsored by Harry Holtzman, who would become one of Mondrian’s closest friends. By 1942, Mondrian would draft a will bequeathing his entire estate — including his artworks, writings, and all other property — to Holtzman. A few months after his arrival, Mondrian restored the painting for Gallatin, who was a friend, indicating that he was not only aware of Gallatin’s possession of the artwork but collaborated with him on keeping it in good condition. Still, Holtzman’s heirs maintain that Mondrian would not have been aware of his legal claim to the painting — especially as World War II raged on — and that his actions would have differed had he known.

On February 1, 1944, before the end of the war, Mondrian passed away — according to Holtzman’s heirs’ complaint, “never having learned that he still had good title to the Painting.” Holtzman never made a claim on the painting himself either, despite surviving Mondrian for over three decades and including “Composition with Blue” in a book he published in 1986 entitled The New Art, The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian.

In 1952, Gallatin gave the painting to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But Lawrence Kaye of Kaye Spiegler PLLC, the law firm representing the heirs, believes that the museum should have proactively researched the provenance of the painting and refused the gift. “There’s no gray area. It was looted Nazi art and our position is no title was transferred — because in the United States, you cannot get the title to stolen art even if you’re a good-faith purchaser,” Kaye tells Hyperallergic.

Philadelphia Museum of Art director Timothy Rub questions the claim that Holtzman’s heirs have advanced. “Why now?” he posed to the New York Times. “The facts of the ownership have not changed.”

“The Philadelphia Museum of Art fully supports restoring artwork looted by the Nazi regime to its rightful owners, and we have done so in the past,” a museum statement read. “We have no reason now to question Mondrian’s decisions or those of his good friend and immediate heir, Harry Holtzman,” it continued, before calling the suit a “meritless claim.”

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University. Find her on