Jewish heirs sue Guggenheim over ownership of a prized Picasso

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Jewish heirs sue Guggenheim over ownership of a prized Picasso
The exterior of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, July 15, 2019. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Matt Stevens

NEW YORK, NY.- In 1916, Karl Adler, a German Jew, purchased a Pablo Picasso painting now viewed as a masterpiece, “Woman Ironing,” from the owner of a prestigious gallery in Munich.

But 22 years later, when he and his family fled Germany to escape Nazi persecution, he was forced to sell the painting back to the gallery for a pittance, according to a recently filed lawsuit that describes the sale as “a desperate attempt to raise cash needed to flee.”

Now several of Adler’s distant relatives are suing the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, to which the painting was donated more than four decades ago, claiming ownership of the work and citing the 1938 sale price — $1,552 (the equivalent of about $32,000 in today’s dollars) — as clear evidence that it was sold under duress.

“Adler would not have disposed of the painting at the time and price that he did, but for the Nazi persecution to which he and his family had been, and would continue to be, subjected,” says the complaint filed this month in New York Supreme Court by the heirs and several nonprofits that are the residual heirs of one of the deceased relatives.

But the museum is defending its right to the painting, asserting that Adler was party to a “fair transaction” with a gallery he knew quite well and that many years ago it had spoken to Adler’s son who raised no concerns about the painting or its sale.

In a statement, the Guggenheim said it “takes provenance matters and restitution claims extremely seriously” and has “conducted expansive research and a detailed inquiry” into “Woman Ironing” (1904), which is among its most prized pieces.

The painting has remained on nearly continuous public display at the Guggenheim since it arrived in 1978. It was part of a bequest to the museum by Justin Thannhauser, who helped run the gallery that initially sold the Picasso to Adler and later bought it back.

The New York Times has described the painting as “a haunting image in muted tones of blue and gray of a skeletal woman, her eyes hollow, her cheeks sunken, pressing down on an iron with all her might.”

Nancy Spector, the Guggenheim’s former artistic director and chief curator, wrote in an analysis of the piece on its website that “Perhaps no artist depicted the plight of the underclasses with greater poignancy than Picasso.

“Woman Ironing,” she said, “is Picasso’s quintessential image of travail and fatigue.”

The legal dispute over the painting is likely to turn on the question of the extent to which Adler was under duress at the time of the sale. The family had fled Germany, and in its statement the Guggenheim noted that, unlike artworks that were stolen by the Nazis, this painting had been sold to a gallery that Adler knew well.

But lawyers for the plaintiffs say in court papers that the family members continued to be in financial distress after leaving their homeland and being “forced into an odyssey back and forth across various European countries.” That distress is evident, the lawsuit says, in Adler’s willingness to “sell the painting for well below its actual value.” Adler had explored a sale in 1932 for $14,000 or more, according to court documents, almost 10 times what he eventually sold it to Thannhauser for six years later.

The lawsuit suggests the painting’s current estimated value is between $100 million and $200 million, a sum the plaintiffs said they would consider in lieu of the actual return of the work.

In its statement, the Guggenheim emphasized what it characterized as good-faith efforts to resolve the dispute. It said it had “engaged in dialogue with claimants’ counsel over the course of several years” but decided “the claim to be without merit.”

The Guggenheim also pointed to the fact that it had reached out to Karl Adler’s son, Eric Adler, in the 1970s to discuss the painting’s provenance — and that Eric Adler “did not raise any concerns” at the time.

“The facts demonstrate that Karl Adler’s sale of the painting to Justin Thannhauser was a fair transaction between parties with a long-standing and continuing relationship,” the museum said. “The Guggenheim believes the outcome of the present court action will confirm that it is the rightful owner of ‘Woman Ironing.’”

A lawyer for the plaintiffs declined to comment on the case or the legal questions it raises, referring a reporter to the allegations made in the complaint. A spokesperson for the Guggenheim provided its statement but did not respond to additional questions from The New York Times.

Nicholas M. O’Donnell, a lawyer who specializes in art matters, said it might prove important that Adler sold the painting after fleeing Germany.

History and law have recognized that a Jewish person did not have the power to make a fair deal within territory controlled by the Nazis, O’Donnell said. But he said it was less clear how much duress the court would assign to a sale executed from outside that territory.

Thannhauser is also a controversial figure, O’Donnell added.

“He just so happened to be in the right place at the right time to take a lot off the hands of Jews desperately fleeing Europe,” O’Donnell said. “Those who defend him say, ‘He was the one who helped them get something.’ Those who criticize him say, ‘It’s funny how he always seemed to end up with this depressed-value art.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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