The Toledo Museum of Art has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, asking for a ruling that it, not the heirs of a Jewish woman who lived in Nazi-era Europe, is the rightful owner of a treasured painting by Paul Gauguin.
The museum acquired Street Scene in Tahiti in 1939 and has displayed it almost continually since.
Joining the suit was the Detroit Institute of Arts, which wants the court to say it has clear title to an 1889 painting by Vincent van Gogh, The Diggers, ownership of which is being challenged by the same 16 heirs.
The paintings likely are worth millions of dollars.
Don Bacigalupi, director of the Toledo museum, and Graham Beal, head of the Detroit museum, met Tuesday in New York City with three heirs of Martha Nathan, who apparently sold the paintings in 1938, according to a researcher hired by the museums.
"They want to continue to pursue the claim," said Mr. Bacigalupi, who refers to the group as "purported" heirs.
The museums hired Laurie Stein of Chicago, who Mr. Bacigalupi said is a Nazi-era art specialist, and she spent 15 months tracking the paintings' movements during the 1930s. "We've concluded the research that proves our clear title," he said.
The museums presented their case and a time line of Mrs. Nathan's ownership of the art to three heirs during the day-long meeting in the office of the heirs' attorney, David Rowland.
Mr. Rowland said the 16 people named in the suit live throughout Europe, in Australia, and California.
They did not expect the museums to file a suit on the heels of Tuesday's meeting, and have not had time to make a statement, Mr. Rowland said.
In mid-2004, the group asked the museums about the paintings' backgrounds, Mr. Bacigalupi said. "We gave them the entire file at that point," he said.
The suit says almost 70 years after the museums bought the paintings, the "distant purported heirs of Mrs. Nathan have repeatedly and deliberately contacted [Toledo Museum of Art] directly and through TMA's legal counsel, by letter and telephone, to assert their claim to ownership and the right to possession of the Painting, attempting to compel TMA to turn possession over to them or enter into an agreement otherwise resolving their claim."
They've "placed a cloud on TMA's title to personal property," the suit, filed in Toledo, says.
The suit says the defendants allege the Toledo museum wrongfully acquired the Gauguin because Mrs. Nathan may have been forced to sell it in occupied Europe or to sell it under duress to pay a Nazi-imposed exit tax. "Despite the fact that the documented evidence demonstrates that Defendants' claim is without merit, Defendants continue to demand the 'return' of the painting or payment of reasonable compensation for their loss.' "
Representing the museums are Toledo attorney Keith Wilkowski and Los Angeles attorney Thaddeus J. Stauber, an expert in art museum issues, including restitution claims.
Mrs. Nathan was born into the Dreyfus banking family and lived in Frankfurt. She married Hugo Nathan. When he died in 1922, she became owner of a large collection of art.
In 1930, she moved some of the most important pieces to Basel, Switzerland, home of the Dreyfus family's Swiss banks, according to the Toledo museum's research.
In December, 1938, three dealers bought the Gauguin and the Van Gogh for $6,865 and $9,364, respectively.
The Toledo museum said its research "confirms that these prices are consistent with prices for comparable works sold voluntarily in Europe at the time." A year later, Toledo bought the Gauguin for $25,000 and, in 1941, a Detroit collector, Robert H. Tannahill, bought the van Gogh for $34,000, bequeathing it to the Detroit museum in 1970.
After World War II and before her death in 1958, Mrs. Nathan sought restitution and recovery of her money, property, and artworks seized by the Nazis, and compensation for assets she sold under duress or at less than fair prices, the Toledo museum research reported.
"None of her claims included or referenced the van Gogh or Gauguin paintings," the Toledo museum said in a news release issued yesterday.
Her brother, Willy Dreyfus, was co-executor of her estate until his death in 1977, and the museum's research indicates he did not challenge the 1938 sale.
Mrs. Nathan had no children. Many of the heirs are thought to be the children of her siblings, Mr. Bacigalupi said.
The lawsuit contends the statute of limitations prevents the defendants from pursuing recovery.
Mr. Rowland said his clients want an independent commission to look at the situation, such as sometimes occurs in Germany. He noted that the museum's research was collected by their representative.
With rich greens, Street Scene in Tahiti depicts a pair of hatted women from the back as they tread a path past a thatched-roof dwelling where another woman sits cross-legged. Mountains and sky are in the distance. Oil on canvas, it measures about 45-by-35 inches. Gauguin painted it in 1891, shortly after he arrived in Tahiti for the first time.
Neither the Toledo nor Detroit museums would affix a value to either of the paintings. In the last three years, sales of Gauguins have ranged from $1 million to $35 million, and recent sales of van Goghs painted near the end of his life have ranged from $2.4 million to $10 million, according to ArtPrice.com.
Other museums and even governments have waged similar wars over ownership of expensive works of art believed to have been stolen from Holocaust survivors or their relatives.
Blade staff writers Mark Reiter and Tad Vezner contributed to this report.
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