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MoMA Returned Valuable Chagall Painting with Disputed Provenance in 2021


In 2021, New York’s Museum of Modern Art returned a valuable Marc Chagall painting from 1913 to the heirs of a prominent German gallerist, settling a legal claim over the work’s disputed ownership.




While the return took place only somewhat recently, it was not known until a New York Times report on court records related to an ongoing legal dispute between the heirs and an outside research firm.




As part of the deal in 2021, the museum received a $4 million fee in exchange for the return of Chagall’s Over Vitebsk (1913). The museum agreed to use the money to set up a provenance research fund in the original owner’s name, but did not announce the establishment of the fund until recently.




The work’s heirs, descendants of the German gallerist Francis Matthiesen, are now in a separate legal dispute over the terms of the work’s return with the Mondex Corporation, a restitution research firm based in Toronto hired to liaise with MoMA over research on the case, per court records reviewed by the Times. Matthieson’s heirs first approached Mondex in 2018 to work on the dispute.




The heirs are stakeholders in the Berlin-based Galerie Matthiesen based. They claim the Canadian firm breached its contract by leaving them out of negotiations with MoMA over the $4 million compensation fee, alleging that they never approved the payment. According to the heirs, Mondex isn’t entitled to the $8.5 million fee stipulated in the contract between them.




James Palmer, founder of the Mondex Corporation, denied that the fee was negotiated improperly. He did not immediately respond to ARTnews ’s request for additional comment.




The financial arrangement in the Chagall settlement isn’t uncommon in high-profile restitution cases, where proceeds from sales are divided between the heirs and owners contesting legal title to artworks with suspect provenance.




The Chagall painting, which depicts an elderly man holding a cane while flying above city of Vitebsk, has a complicated ownership record. According to its publicly listed provenance, it was transferred during the Nazi occupation in 1934 to Germany’s Dresner bank, which, according to the gallery’s website, “acquired it in a forced sale” and showed it at the Berlin Nationalgalerie a year later. MoMA bought the work privately in 1949.




Details about the work’s sale to Dresner are still being disputed by researchers. A 2017 book by researcher Lynn Rother titled Art for Credit , about the role of art used as loan collateral during World War II, states that there is no evidence that the Chagall was seized under duress, and that it was negotiated willingly by Matthiesen’s gallery.




Between 2018 and 2021, Mondex presented MoMA with additional research, contending that the transfer of the painting and other artworks from the gallery to settle a bank loan was done under duress, as the bank significantly undervalued them.




In 2021, after acquiring the work through from the museum, the gallery sold it for $24 million to a European collector, whose identity hasn’t been disclosed. Upon listing the work for private sale, the gallery suggested in press materials the painting depicts a Russian emigrant, which “has relevance at a time when stories of displacement and ethnic identity have such media currency.”




The sale marks one of the highest disclosed prices for a work by Chagall. His auction record, set in 2017, currently stands at $28.5 million.

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