Jewish heirs fight over a Picasso painting that was sold as the Nazis rose to power
War was looming in 1938, and Adler allegedly had no choice but to sell a prized possession: a Pablo Picasso painting.
painting, blue era A personal photo titled “Ironing a Woman” In the end it secured Adler’s passage to Argentina. Now, decades later, his family’s heirs want it back. A lawsuit filed Friday in New York County Superior Court alleges that the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, where the painting is on display, wrongfully owned the Picasso portrait because it was sold under Nazi repression and is seeking its return to Adler’s heirs.
The lawsuit alleges that “Adler would not have disposed of the painting at the time and price that he did, but because of the Nazi persecution to which he and his family were subjected and will continue to be subjected.”
An attorney representing the Adler estate declined to comment on behalf of the plaintiffs. In a statement, the Guggenheim Foundation challenged the lawsuit’s allegations.
“Guggenheim has conducted extensive research and detailed investigation in response to this allegation, has engaged in dialogue with Claimants’ attorneys over several years, and believes the allegation is without merit,” the statement said.
Adler’s dilemma was a common one faced by immigrant Jews as they fled Nazi Germany, Holland-based art investigator Arthur Brand told The Washington Post.
“People always think, ‘Look, Nazis [only] They went into Jewish homes, got their paintings, stole them from them, sold them or whatever,” said Brand, who helps Jewish families locate stolen artwork. “That’s not how the Nazis worked.”
In the early years of their regime, the Nazi government targeted Jews with an array of financial penalties and taxes, including an exorbitant wealth tax and flight tax on dozens of Jewish immigrants leaving Germany to escape persecution before banning Jewish immigration in 1941. The suit, brought by Adler’s heirs, also alleges that Adler incurred additional costs as he paid for short-term visas to enter various European countries while waiting to obtain a permanent visa for Argentina.
According to the complaint, Adler sold his Picasso painting for well below its market value. In 1931, he valued it at about $14,000, according to the lawsuit. In 1938 he allegedly sold it to a Jewish collector in Paris, Justin Tannhauser, for approximately $1,500, after it was bound for cash.
The complaint alleges that “Thanhauser, as Picasso’s leading art dealer, knew he had acquired the painting at an exorbitant sale price.”
Thanhauser requested that the “Woman Ironing” be given as a gift to the Guggenheim after his death, the complaint alleges. He died in 1976, and the painting was acquired by the Museum Foundation two years later. The Guggenheim Foundation said “Woman Ironing” was on continuous display at the Guggenheim in the decades since.
Carl and Rosa Adler died in 1957 and 1946 respectively, according to the complaint, and their three children, who died between 1989 and 1994, inherited the family inheritance to several relatives and charitable foundations. According to the complaint, one of Adler’s great-grandsons, Thomas Bennigson, learned of the family’s alleged claim of “Woman Ironing” in 2014 and hired a law firm. Bennigson and seven other relatives and nine nonprofits, who are alleged to be Adler’s heirs, are the plaintiffs suing Guggenheim for the return of the painting.
Brand thinks the heirs have a case.
“I think if the family can prove that, in fact, they didn’t get the market rate and that Adler himself had to pay flight or visa taxes [fees]They have a chance to get the painting back.”
But Leila Amendouleh, a New York-based attorney who specializes in arts and cultural heritage law, told The Post that US judges have been reluctant to invalidate the sales using the argument of coercion. A descendant of a Jewish family who sold another Picasso painting to flee Germany to Italy lost a similar painting Issue v. New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018. An appeals court sided with the Met in 2019 but sidestepped the case, ruling that the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their claim.
“The courts have not given very clear guidance on what constitutes a forced sale,” Amendoleh said. “It looks like the courts are kind of sanctioning that question and deciding [cases] For other reasons.
The Guggenheim Foundation said in its statement that two of Adler’s children are on good terms with the foundation and Tannhauser. Before receiving “Woman Ironing,” the foundation said it contacted one of Adler’s sons, who raised no concerns about the painting or its sale to Thannhauser. She also said that Adler’s daughter had kept in touch with Tannhauser and that the family had entrusted a second painting to his care at the time of the “women’s iron” sale.
“There is no evidence that Carl Adler or his three sons, now deceased, considered the sale unfair or considered Thanhauser to be a bad faith actor,” the statement said.
Brand said the foundation’s argument does not consider that opinions might change as awareness grows about the various ways Nazi Germany pressured Jewish families to sell their prized possessions.
“This family … can change its mind,” Brand said. We now better understand the tactics of the Nazis. Even though something seemed voluntary, it didn’t always mean that it was really voluntary.”
Brand and Amendole said their unique field will continue to evolve as historical knowledge grows — and conflicts continue around the world. Brand said the idea of suing to invalidate sales under duress only came about in the last 20 years. Amendoleh said she expects more cases in the fallout from the recent conflicts.
“We will be dealing with things looted from Ukraine for years to come,” Amendoleh said. “Antiquities have been looted from Iraq since the first Gulf War and are still on the market… Art, unfortunately, has always been a target.”