The heir to a prominent German Jewish family is suing New York’s Guggenheim Museum over the return of a prized Pablo Picasso painting, which she says was sold under threat of Nazi persecution 85 years ago.
A lawsuit filed January 20 in the New York Supreme Court alleges that the painting Ironing Woman (1904) was sold under duress in 1938, when its owner, Karl Adler, hurried to flee Nazi Germany with the wife, Rosie Jacobi. The plaintiffs, including one of Adler and Jacobi’s direct descendants, Thomas Bennigson, and several Jewish charities, are seeking either the return of the work or damages ranging from $100 million to $200 million. The complaint was filed under provisions of the 2016 Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act and asks judges to ascertain whether the artwork was sold illegally or for extortion. «Adler would not have disposed of the painting at that time and at the price that was established then, if it hadn’t been for the Nazi persecution to which he and his family were subjected», reads the documentation viewed by ArtNet.
The painting is part of Picasso’s “Blue Period”.
Chairman of the board of directors of a major leather company, Adler bought Picasso’s Blue Period painting in 1916 from the Munich gallery owner Heinrich Thannhauser. Twenty-two years later, the businessman and his wife fled Germany following mounting threats of persecution by the Nazis. The couple planned to emigrate to Argentina and needed money to cover the costs of short-term visas and the flight tax set up by the Nazis. In an effort to liquidate his assets, Adler sold Ironing Woman to Heinrich Thannhauser’s son, Justin Thannhauser, for $1,552, or about $32,000 today. The heir’s complaint defines the sale as “forced” and the price “well below” the market value. “Thannhauser, as a major Picasso art dealer, must have known he had bought the painting at a bargain price,” the lawsuit reads. “At the time of the sale, Thannhauser was buying similar masterpieces from other German Jews who were fleeing Germany and profiting from their misfortunes. Thannhauser was well aware of the situation of Adler and his family » the complaint continues, « and of the fact that, if there hadn’t been Nazi persecution, Adler would never have sold the painting at that price ».
The Guggenheim’s response
Citing its own provenance research, the Guggenheim said in a statement that the plaintiff’s case is “baseless.” “Woman Ironing” entered the museum’s collection in 1978, following an extended loan and Justin Thannhauser’s promise of a donation in 1965. But before the acquisition was final, Guggenheim trustees investigated the painting’s past and contacted Karl Adler’s son Eric Adler as part of the investigation. According to the museum institution, the young Adler “did not raise any concerns about the painting or its sale.” The museum also stressed that the Thannhausers were also Jewish and subject to Nazi persecution. “Extensive research conducted by the Guggenheim since was contacted by a lawyer representing these plaintiffs demonstrate that the Guggenheim is the rightful owner of the painting,” the museum’s statement continued. “There is no evidence that Karl Adler or his three sons, now deceased, ever considered the sale unfair or that they considered Thannhauser a bad faith plaintiff, either at the time of the transaction or thereafter.”
A Guggenheim spokesman further explained that the painting is currently on display at the museum, as it has been almost continuously since it was purchased 45 years ago. The artwork is not accompanied by a sign stating that it “changed hands through theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale, or other involuntary means” during the Nazi era, as required by New York law recently approved.