The quiet return of a stolen Chagall painting by MoMA causes a scandal

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The MoMA received $4 million as part of a settlement to return the work, and the heirs are going to court, claiming the museum's compensation was unfair.

For years, Marc Chagall's painting “Over Vitebsk” held a central place in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The Jewish artist's work, with a Jewish theme, was previously owned by a gallery run by a Jewish dealer in Nazi-era Germany.

Although its history is murky, the New York museum held the painting for decades, claiming it held legal title. But MoMA admitted last week that three years ago, without public announcement, it returned the painting to the German gallery's heirs.

The return of the Chagall painting is one of the strangest art restorations by a museum in recent years, in part because of the financial deal that accompanied its return to the heirs, who sold it last year for $24 million.

MoMA, which acquired the work in 1949, received $4 million in compensation for its return as part of the agreement with seven heirs.

One of the heirs, Patrick Mathiesen, the son of the German gallery's main owner, Francis Mathiesen, said the journey to recover his father's artwork had not been a pleasant one. And he does not at all agree with the American museum getting 4 million dollars as compensation.

Mathiesen, who runs his own gallery in London, says he is also upset that the museum, until last week, had not publicly announced what it had agreed to use the payment for – setting up a research fund in the father's name of.

MoMA released a brief statement saying it had “engaged in extensive research into the provenance of the painting” with the heirs, acknowledged receiving payment from them and said the money was used to support a research fund in Mathiesen's name.

Chagall's painting, a lyrical and somewhat mystical work, is part of a series that began after he returned from Paris in 1914 to Vitebsk, his hometown, in present-day Belarus.

The German gallery to which the painting once belonged was founded by Francis Mathiesen in Berlin. When the Nazis took power, Mathiesen left Germany in 1933 and the gallery was forced to close in 1939.

MoMA said the gallery had given the Chagall painting to a major German bank in 1934 “in exchange for a reduction in its debt.” Dresdner Bank, which received the work, prospered during Hitler's regime and helped finance the construction of the Auschwitz death camp, which the bank later acknowledged in a 2006 report. Investigations show the painting was worth a lot more than the debt, so it was looting with the Nazis taking advantage of the political situation.

In 1935, Chagall's painting was among the thousands of works of art sold by Dresdner to the Prussian finance ministry for inclusion in Berlin museums. The organization that oversees these museums, the Prussian Foundation for Cultural Heritage, said it was investigating whether any of the works should be considered Nazi-looted art since their original owners were Jewish. This particular painting was sold and brought to the United States where a New York gallery sold it to MoMA as the museum wanted to expand its collection.

The museum described the work as one of five important Chagall paintings in its collection during a 1957 exhibition celebrating Chagall's 70th birthday. It had been in MoMA's collection for decades before the research began. Chagall's heir believes that the museum should not have received any compensation, instead it has benefited from the exhibition of the work for a number of years.

With information from NYT

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