Maestracci says in his federal complaint that the Nazis had "a practice and policy of despoiling Jewish families of property located in the occupied zone by forced sales." Maestracci says his grandfather, Stettiner, loaned the painting in 1930 to the Venice Biennale, a world-famous art exhibition. In 1939 Stettiner was forced to flee Paris "with the threat of Nazi invasion looming," leaving his art collection behind.
In 1941, the Nazis appointed Marcel Philippon a temporary administrator to sell Stettiner's property, Maestracci says. Philippon sold the painting on July 3, 1944 without Stettiner's consent, and despite his attempts after the war, Stettiner was unable to find the painting to recover it, Maestracci says.
Stettiner died in 1948. Since then his heirs "have made reasonable and diligent efforts" to find his art collection, Maestracci says. He says he located it in 2008, when Sotheby's published it as being consigned for sale by the Helly Nahmad Gallery.
Maestracci says he wrote to the gallery demanding the return of the painting, but it failed to respond. He claims that under New York law, "the July 3, 1944 sale was void since it occurred without the owner's consent in violation of international law and New York's law and public policy not to recognize forced sales under the Nazi regime."
Maestracci seeks declaratory judgment that the painting is his, and wants the gallery ordered to deliver it. He is represented by Raymond Dowd, with Dunnington, Bartholow, and Miller.
Modigliani (1884-1920), a highly regarded painter and sculptor best known for his portraits, died of tuberculosis in Paris at 35.