But after the Nazis came to power, “Composition With Blue” was confiscated as “degenerate” in the merciless purge of modern art from German museums that was orchestrated by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. More than 20,000 works were seized from about 100 museums and stored in a wheat silo in Berlin. “Composition With Blue” still bears the inventory sticker identifying it as “entartete Kunst,” or degenerate art.
Judged by the Nazis to be marketable abroad, the painting was then given to Karl Buchholz, one of a select group of art dealers appointed by Adolf Hitler to sell “degenerate” works to foreign buyers. Buchholz sent it to his New York-based business partner Curt Valentin to sell in the United States.
Among the potential customers Valentin contacted was Alexander Dorner, the former director of the Hanover museum, who had fled the Nazis and headed the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. Dorner was keen to buy the works that had been confiscated from the museum he once led. But he recognized that “Composition With Blue” had belonged, not to the museum, but to a private person and he declined, according to research conducted for the heirs by Gunnar Schnabel, a German lawyer, and Monika Tatzkow, a provenance researcher.
Valentin then sold it to Albert E. Gallatin, a New York collector, in 1939. Gallatin appears to have believed that the painting belonged to the Hanover museum before it was seized. In the face of public criticism of U.S. collectors who purchased art confiscated from German museums, he is quoted in The New York Times on Oct. 29, 1939, saying that if the Nazis were one day ousted, “it is proposed to restore these paintings, should their return be desired, to the museums where they once hung.”
Mondrian, who left Paris in 1938, before World War II broke out, ended up in New York, where Gallatin lived. In December 1939, he wrote to Gallatin, saying, “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.” He later agreed to restore the painting for Gallatin — evidence, according to Rub at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, that Mondrian acknowledged and accepted Gallatin’s ownership.
The heirs, however, argue that as World War II still raged, Mondrian didn’t realize that he retained a valid claim to property seized by the Nazis, perhaps because he assumed incorrectly that expropriations by the German government in power had been legal. In fact, the heirs argue, even under Nazi law, confiscating art from non-German private individuals was prohibited.