Artworks
Composition

Contributor

Mondrian’s Composition suffered from identity theft.

But that isn’t half as bad as what happened to the painting many decades ago. The Provizial-Museum bought the painting for 250 Reichsmark, as the very first Mondrian sold to a public collection in Germany. Legend goes, Piet was so happy the museum bought his painting, he hopped through his studio on one leg. But then WWII happened and Hitler felt the need to force his terrible taste in art onto everybody. Hitler hated Mondrian and used Composition as an example of degenerate art during the exhibition in Munich in 1937. The exhibition attracted over 2 million visitors in 5 months, so I guess the rest of Germany loved those degenerate masterpieces. Experts think that after the show, the artwork, along with over 16,000 other degenerate paintings, were stored in the basement of the ministry of “public enlightenment and propaganda.” No one really knows what happened to this immense collection of paintings after the war. A very plausible explanation would be that the works got destroyed, but why not blame the Russians? Some say the Soviets looted the basement, which means the paintings might still be stored somewhere. Sounds like the plot for a fifth Indiana Jones movie if you ask me!

Years later, in 2016, the painting suddenly showed up at the Bozar museum in Brussels. The catalogue described the painting as “untitled” 1923, and was said to belong to a private collection. Mondrian biographer Léon Hanssen immediately recognized it as the long lost Composition. The curator told him the museum got it from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and that’s where the story gets even more interesting. The mysterious Swiss collector had agreed to loan the painting to the museum, in return the museum had to pay for the restoration. Stedelijk asked Léon Hanssen to investigate the painting. Not that they questioned its authenticity or anything as they had visited the collector and he waved some paperwork at them. Legend has it that the painting popped up in the Soviet Union, somewhere in the 60s/70s. The collector inherited the painting from his parents who were art dealers and holocaust survivors, and who dares to question holocaust survivors right? No, the Stedelijk was more worried about the condition of the painting, since it had been exposed to bright sunlight day in day out, for years. It was about time the masterpiece found its way into a proper museum collection.

When Léon visited the collector in Switzerland, he was told Beatrix Ruff, the Stedelijk’s director, was a dear friend of the collector. “I don’t have a story, all I have is the painting”, the guy said. Instead of said elaborate paperwork, all the evidence he had was a few Wikipedia printouts… The plot thickened! During Léon's second visit, the collector came up with a whole different story. He found the painting at an art dealer in Basel and, of course, paid cash. The dealers statement said he bought it from from a guy who was family of Georg Schmidt, former director of the art museum in Basel. Schmidt was known to have bought degenerate art for dirt cheap after the war, so that kinda made sense. Case closed you say? Well it might have been if it hadn't been for Schmidt’s granddaughter who stated her grandfather never ever owned a Mondrian. The “family member” who sold the painting also turned out to be an art dealer known for selling fake art.

The woman assigned to restore the painting texted Léon to confirm his doubts. Some lines turned out to be a tiny bit different, but more noticeable, the signature was in the wrong place! HOW did no-one notice? Well, actually, people knew for years. The painting had been exposed as a fake more than once. Seems like the collector tricked his friend, in order to make a boat load of money himself. If identified as a real Mondrian, the painting would’ve sold for millions. Or maybe the museum knew and just wanted to make headlines, while helping out a friend?