Seattle gets pick of paintings after Matisse loss

A case that has involved the Nazi theft of a prized Matisse, decades of art history and detective work, art-world intrigue and the watchful eyes of museum directors all over the world is finally over.

The result: The Seattle Art Museum is vindicated and gets a chance to choose at least one painting from the inventory of New York's oldest art gallery.

After a three-year dispute over the provenance - or record of ownership - of Matisse's "Odalisque," SAM officials and Knoedler & Co. art gallery have reached a settlement.

The Seattle connection began with collectors Prentice and Virginia Bloedel, who bought "Odalisque" from Knoedler in the 1950s and donated it to SAM in 1991. But Hector Feliciano's influential book "The Lost Museum: The Nazi Consipiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art," listed "Odalisque" as part of a trove of art the Nazis stole in Paris during World War II.

The museum sued the New York gallery in 1997, alleging that the gallery knowingly sold a painting stolen by the Nazi regime. After two years of researching the ownership of the painting, SAM returned the work to heirs of Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg in June 1999.

The settlement means that Knoedler will give to the Seattle museum one or more works of art from its inventory or the "equivalent" in cash. Neither party will say how much cash that is. Knoedler also has agreed to reimburse the museum for its legal fees and the costs connected with the suit and waives the right to collect attorney's fees that the court had previously ordered the museum to pay.

What does Knoedler get? SAM will withdraw the accusations of fraud and negligent misrepresentation. When Knoedler asked the court last year to dismiss the fraud claim, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik ruled that there was sufficient evidence for it to be decided by a jury.

The case may have far-reaching effects: Many museums around the world are struggling with issues of provenance, and it's unknown how many more stolen paintings are hanging on the walls of prestigious institutions.

"Museums get so many works by gift," said Stuart Dunwoody, attorney for SAM. "This case shows that museums can hold the seller accountable on behalf of its donors."

"We're very pleased that it's settled," said SAM director Mimi Gardner Gates. "We feel good that the museum did the right thing in returning the painting and that the case is over."

The director of Knoedler & Co., Ann Freeman, speaking by phone, would not discuss the terms of the agreement.

"If there's anything I would choose to emphasize, it's that this settlement is larger than our specific case," she said. "Being in the world of art, this case has the potential to be part of a universal understanding and healing."

Gates said that the museum has 30 days to look over the inventory at Knoedler to pick a painting. Don't expect SAM to score another Matisse: Knoedler specializes in postwar American art, particularly abstract expressionism, and the inventory includes works by Milton Avery, Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, David Smith and Sam Francis. Choosing a meaningful addition to the collection falls to Chio Ishikawa, SAM's interim deputy director for art, in consultation with Gates and departing chief curator Trevor Fairbrother.

After "Odalisque" was returned to the Rosenbergs, the family sold it to Las Vegas casino owner Steve Winn, who displayed it at his sumptuous hotel complex Bellagio.

Winn has since resold the painting through Acquavella Contemporary Art in New York. Dunwoody says that the sale was registered to a limited-liability company with a post-office box in the Grand Cayman Islands. The work was shipped to Switzerland and has not been heard of since. The sale price: $11 million.