Court Judgment Affirms Ownership of Painting

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston celebrates its new Art of the Americas wing with a free public opening today. Meanwhile, hanging in the Rabb Gallery, part of the museum’s older section, is a nearly 100 year-old oil painting, which was the focus of a recent court judgment. The museum is hailing the October decision issued by the United States Court of Appeals determining its rightful ownership of this painting, Two Nudes (Lovers) c. 1913 by Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). The decision affirms the original May 2009 U.S. District Court ruling, effectively ending the fight over rightful ownership.

The museum owns more than a dozen works by Oskar Kokoschka, a Viennese painter who was part of a notable trio, which included Gustav Klimt. Kokoschka’s persona drew both high praise and heavy criticism. Archduke Franz Ferdinand once remarked after one of the artist’s exhibitions, “This fellow’s bones ought to be broken in his body!” His personal life often crossed into his artistic work—he undertook a controversial affair with the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler.

Depicting the artist and his lover Alma Mahler, the museum has owned the Expressionist Two Nudes (Lovers) since 1973. In 2007, an Austrian woman claiming to be an heir of the original owner, who sold the painting in 1939, made a request for restitution against the museum. In 2009, a judge ruled that the woman, described as a non-relative (a “select niece”) by her own counsel, had waited too long to claim property rights, and last month this decision was upheld.

The decision makes such claims time-barred, and sets a precedent deterring future attempts to make decades-old claims on art. The judge ruled that, among other considerations, the family of the original owner “never attempted to recover the painting after World War II, and there is no evidence that it believed the transfer was not legitimate,” and that although the family claimed “restitution for artwork and property that had been stolen by the Nazis,” it never alleged that any artworks by Kokoschka were included in this. Since the court found no evidence that Two Nudes (Lovers) was sold under duress, stolen, or looted, the museum’s case for ownership was resolved.

Their provenance traced the painting from its sale around 1914-1915 in Vienna to Oskar Reichel. As the painting’s first owner, he sold it to Otto Kallir, who in turn brought the painting, with others, to the United States. Kallir sent money to Reichel’s sons and sold the painting to a New York gallery. Another gallery purchased the painting and ultimately sold it to Sarah Reed (Blodgett) Platt in the late 1940s, who left it to the museum upon her death in 1973. The work has been on view at the museum almost continuously since.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston currently makes provenance available online for more than 346,000 pieces of art. Opened on the nation’s July 4, 1876 centennial with 5,600 pieces, the museum now houses 450,000 works, double that of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which opened in 1877.