Law

The Heir of a German-Jewish Collector Is Suing the Guggenheim for the Return of a Prized Picasso Painting—Or $150 Million


The heir of a prominent German-Jewish family is suing New York’s Guggenheim Museum for the return of a prized Pablo Picasso painting, which he says was sold under the threat of Nazi persecution 85 years ago.  

A lawsuit filed January 20 in Manhattan Supreme Court alleges that the painting, Woman Ironing (1904), was sold under duress in 1938 as its owner, Karl Adler, rushed to flee Nazi-run Germany with his wife, Rosi Jacobi. The plaintiffs in the case, which include one of Adler and Jacobi’s direct descendants—Thomas Bennigson—and numerous Jewish charities, are seeking the return of the artwork or $100 to $200 million in damages.

The case, which was filed under the provisions of the 2016 Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, may come down to whether or not the artwork was determined to have been sold illegally or through extortion.

“[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,” the filing reads.

A general view of the exterior facade of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images.

A view of the exterior facade of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images.

The board chairman of a major leather manufacturer, Adler acquired the Blue Period painting in 1916, from the Munich-based gallery owner Heinrich Thannhauser. Twenty-two years later, the businessman and his wife fled Germany amid increasing threats of persecution from the Nazis.

The couple planned to immigrate to Argentina and needed money to cover the cost of short-term visas and the Nazi-instituted flight tax. As part of an effort to liquidate his assets, Adler sold Woman Ironing to Heinrich Thannhauser’s son, Justin Thannhauser, for $1,552—or roughly $32,000 today.  

The heir’s complaint characterizes the sale as “forced” and its price as “well below” market value.

“Thannhauser, as a leading art dealer of Picasso, must have known he acquired the painting for a fire sale price,” the suit says. “At the time of the sale, Thannhauser was buying comparable masterpieces from other German Jews who were fleeing from Germany and profiting from their misfortune.”

“Thannhauser was well-aware of the plight of Adler and his family,” the complaint goes on, “and that, absent Nazi persecution, Adler would never have sold the painting when he did at such a price.”

Citing its own provenance research, the Guggenheim said in a statement that the plaintiff’s case is “without merit.”

Woman Ironing entered the museum’s collection in 1978, following an extended loan and promised gift from Justin Thannhauser in 1965. But before the acquisition was final, Guggenheim administrators looked into the painting’s past and contacted Karl Adler’s son, Eric Adler, as part of the process. 

The younger Adler “did not raise any concerns about the painting or its sale,” according to the institution. The museum also pointed out that the Thannhausers, too, were Jewish and subject to Nazi persecution.  

“The extensive research conducted by the Guggenheim since first being contacted by an attorney representing these claimants demonstrates that the Guggenheim is the rightful owner of the painting,” the museum’s statement went on. “There is no evidence that Karl Adler or his three children, now deceased, ever viewed the sale as unfair or considered Thannhauser a bad‐faith actor, either at the time of the transaction or at any time since.”

A spokesperson for the Guggenheim further explained that the painting is currently on view at the museum, as it has been almost continuously since being acquired 45 years ago. The artwork is not accompanied by signage stating that it “changed hands due to theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale, or other involuntary means” during the Nazi era, as required by a recently passed New York law.

A lawyer representing Adler and Jacobi’s heir and the other plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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A Prized Van Gogh Was Sold Under Nazi Threat, Say the Heirs of a Jewish Banker Who Are Suing to Reclaim the Painting From a Museum


The heirs of a German Jewish businessman are suing a Japanese company over its prized Van Gogh painting, which they say was sold under threat of Nazi punishment nearly 90 years ago.

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888) once belonged to the Berlin-based banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who hastily sold off his art collection in around 1934 in an effort to protect his other assets from the Nazis.  

After exchanging hands multiple times, the piece was purchased by the Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company, in 1987, at Christie’s London for a then-record price of £25 million (roughly $40 million at the time). In 2002, Yasuda was incorporated into another company, Sompo Holdings, which owns Van Gogh’s canvas today.

But even though Yasuda acquired the painting legally, three of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s descendants—Julius H. Schoeps, Britt-Marie Enhoerning, and Florence Von Kesselstatt, who are all plaintiffs in the case—now argue that the company ignored the artwork’s historical context in purchasing it.

In their complaint, filed on December 13, 2022 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the heirs allege that Yasuda “recklessly—if not purposefully—ignored the provenance of Sunflowers that Christie’s published, which related that the famous Jewish Berlin banker and prominent Nazi victim Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy sold the painting in Berlin in 1934—at a time when notorious Nazi policies were targeting and dispossessing elite Jewish bankers and businessmen like Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and wreaking havoc upon Germany’s Jewish population.”

Appended to the complaint is a 2001 email sent from the Yasuda Museum of Art to the Van Gogh Museum as the two institutions were discussing a possible loan of Sunflowers for an upcoming exhibition. 

“We are deeply concerned about our [Van] Gogh and Gauguin provenance,” an administrator from the Japanese company’s museum wrote in the message. “We think our two works have nothing to do with Nazi-looted art, but we are not 100% sure.” 

The entrance to the Sompo Museum of Art in Tokyo. Courtesy of the Sompo Museum of Art.

The heirs are seeking to have the painting transferred to their possession, or if that’s not an option, they want $750 million in damages—an amount they say is equal to the artwork’s present-day market value.

Representatives from Sompo Holdings did not immediately respond to Midnight Publishing Group News’s request for comment, but a spokesperson for the company previously told Courthouse News that “Sompo categorically rejects any allegation of wrongdoing and intends to vigorously defend its ownership rights in Sunflowers.

“It is a matter of public record that Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company purchased the Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers work at public auction from Christie’s in London in 1987,” the company employee added, noting that, for the past 35 years, the painting has been on display at the Sompo Museum of Fine Art in Tokyo.

According to Van Gogh specialist Martin Bailey, who publishes a weekly blog on the painter for the Art Newspaper, the case will likely come down to whether or not the court determines that Sunflowers was subject to a “forced sale” at a below-market price because of Nazi persecution.

The complaint explains that “purposeful and unrelenting Nazi policies to exclude Jews from the economy of Germany—and especially to eradicate Jewish banks—crippled Mendelssohn-Bartholdy financially and forced him in or around 1934 to consign Sunflowers to Parisian art dealer Paul Rosenberg.” 

The filing refers to the sale as a “paradigmatic forced transfer,” although there is no known record of how much Rosenberg paid in the exchange, which may make it difficult to prove that Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was pressured to offload the painting at a low price. The heirs’ lawyers did not respond to an email from Midnight Publishing Group.

Sompo is expected to contest the complaint in court. Meanwhile, Sunflowers remains on display at the company’s Tokyo museum.

 

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An Artist Suing Meow Wolf for $1 Million Is on the Hook to Pay the Experiential Art Giant’s Legal Fees


As Lauren Adele Oliver’s nearly three-year legal battle with art entertainment giant Meow Wolf continues, a New Mexico federal judge has issued an order granting sanctions against the artist, who will have to pay the legal fees for two motions filed by the popular purveyor of immersive art experiences.

Oliver sued Meow Wolf in March 2020 over the copyright of her sculpture Space Owl. The towering furry figure is the centerpiece of her climate-change themed installation Ice Station Quellette at Meow Wolf’s flagship exhibition, “House of Eternal Return,” which opened in Santa Fe to widespread acclaim in 2016.

Meow Wolf allegedly promised Oliver an “artist revenue share” for her work as part of what was then considered an art collective. She says she was only paid $2,000, even though the company went on to raise millions from investors, eventually expanding to Las Vegas and Denver.

Last week, Judge Kirtan Khalsa ruled that should the case be heard by a jury, Meow Wolf will be allowed to bring evidence that Oliver had deleted five years of email correspondence prior to initiating litigation, Courthouse News reported. Previously, Khalsa had denied the company’s motion to issue sanctions on the matter, ruling that Oliver had not been planning to sue Meow Wolf when she deleted the messages in July 2018.

Lauren Adele Oliver with a <em>Space Owl</em> toy. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Lauren Adele Oliver with a Space Owl toy. Photo courtesy of the artist.

But Meow Wolf’s legal team discovered new evidence that made Khalsa change her mind. A day before the mass deletion, Oliver had sent a text message asking for someone to help her find a “big gun” attorney who would help her secure a better deal with Meow Wolf by threatening litigation.

After reviewing new evidence, Judge Kirtan Khalsa ruled that Oliver “acted in bad faith” because “litigation was reasonably foreseeable” given the deteriorating state of her relationship with Meow Wolf.

“The court found the timing of the deletion to be suspicious” as it came at a period of “a rising dispute” surrounding Space Owl, Khalsa wrote. The judge also noted, however, that she was not convinced that the “deleted [emails] contained information that, if discovered, would have harmed [Oliver’s] case.”

Oliver claimed she stopped using the email address in 2015, after she learned it had been compromised in a hacking attack perpetrated against her insurance company, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. She set up an auto-response to let contacts know the address was inactive, and conducted almost all of her correspondence with Meow Wolf at a new email account.

Lauren Adele Oliver's Space Owl at Meow Wolf's "House of Eternal Return." Photo by Gabriella Marks.

Lauren Adele Oliver/Quellette, Space Owl at Meow Wolf’s “House of Eternal Return.” Photo by Gabriella Marks.

“The court’s ruling is complex, and we are weighing our options,” Oliver’s lawyer, Jesse A. Boyd, told Midnight Publishing Group News in an email. “This should not distract from the merits of the case. We intend to demonstrate at trial that Meow Wolf, Inc., impersonated an art collective in order to misappropriate the work of dozens of artists, including Lauren’s, as well as the labor of hundreds of volunteers and the financial support of the Santa Fe community in order to launch their entertainment empire.”

The latest ruling is just a small part of the case pending before Khalsa, who has scheduled a settlement conference for January 18. If the two sides fail to reach an agreement, the long-running dispute could go to trial.

As of press time, lawyers for Meow Wolf had not responded to inquiries from Midnight Publishing Group News.

In the lawsuit, Oliver is seeking more than $1 million in compensation, arguing that Space Owl, which she first created in 2006, was integral to Meow Wolf’s initial success, and widely used in its marketing and merchandise. Midnight Publishing Group News included “House of Eternal Return” on its list of the 100 defining works of the decade, with a photo of Space Owl illustrating the groundbreaking installation.

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TeamLab Wins Its Lawsuit Against a Chinese Company That Replicated One of the Collective’s Immersive Art Experiences


Setting an important precedent for the copyright of experiential art in China, the immersive art sensation teamLab has won a lawsuit against a company that imitated one of the group’s signature light shows and used its name to promote it.

The Chinese company Teamlab Borderless took the Japanese art collective’s indoor, interactive, participatory, and soundtrack-free work and staged it outside in a non-participatory, non-interactive way, accompanied by music.

The court recognized TeamLab’s copyright to the work, Forest of Resonating Lamps (2016), because it displayed “originality and aesthetic significance.” The court also said that the teamLab work was widely known as a work by the collective, and was “highly prominent in the art exhibition services sector and is further widely known to the relevant public including the Chinese public.”

In addition to the aesthetic similarities between the works, the defendants exhibited their version under a strikingly similar name: TeamLab Borderless Breathing Forest Light Exhibition, which was displayed on signage and on tickets for the exhibition. 

teamLab's work alongside the work by TEAMLAB BORDERLESS. Courtesy Pace Gallery

teamLab’s work alongside the work by TEAMLAB BORDERLESS. Courtesy Pace Gallery

The case could have wider ramifications in China, where in the past local companies have prevailed against foreign ones in copyright cases. In 2020, Muji’s Chinese name was copyrighted by another brand, and the shop MiniSo offers almost identical products with near-identical branding. Another Chinese brand copyrighted the name “iPad” and successfully sued the U.S. tech giant, costing it $60 million in 2012.

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The Complicated Story Behind Jasper Johns’s Dispute With a Cameroonian Teen Over a Drawing of a Knee (It Has a Happy Ending)


Ahead of the opening of his current double retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of ArtJasper Johns had a spot of legal trouble. The problem was one of his new works, Slice, and its use of a silkscreened copy of a drawing by a 17-year-old boy.

Jéan-Marc Togodgue, who moved to the United States from the Republic of Cameroon in west-central Africa four years ago, was shocked when he got a letter from Johns in April. The esteemed painter, perhaps the most important living American artist, admitted that a drawing the teen had gifted their mutual orthopedic surgeon, Alexander M. Clark Jr., was prominently featured in his painting Slice (2020).

A talented athlete who hopes to earn a basketball scholarship, Togodgue attends Salisbury School, an all-boys academy in Connecticut. He also loves to draw, sketching different characters in his notebooks. When he tore his anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus playing soccer shortly after his arrival to the country in 2017, Togodgue drew the inner workings of the knee based on an image he found on the internet.

He presented it to Clark, who hung it in his Sharon, Connecticut, office. That’s where it caught Johns’s eye.

The now 91-year-old artist “thought that the image might be useful” and copied it, he wrote in the letter to Togodgue. “I should have asked you then if you would mind my using it, but I was not certain that my idea would ever materialize.”

But materialize it did, in Slice, which also features “Slice of the Universe,” a 1986 star map showing the distribution of nearby galaxies that astrophysicist Margaret Geller sent Johns in 2018. (The image intrigued Johns because of the way the galaxy markers seem to form a stick man in the middle of the image.) But while he warned Geller that she was helping inspire a new piece, Togodgue had no idea his drawing had caught the eye of a famous artist until after the work was done.

Margaret Geller sent this “Slice of the Universe” (1986) showing the distribution of nearby galaxies to Jasper Johns, who incorporated it into one of his paintings. V. de Lapparent, M.J. Geller, and J.P. Huchra, 1986, Astrophysical Journal Letters, 302, L1 (graphics by M.J. Kurtz).

Margaret Geller sent this “Slice of the Universe” (1986) showing the distribution of nearby galaxies to Jasper Johns, who incorporated it into one of his paintings. V. de Lapparent, M.J. Geller, and J.P. Huchra, 1986, Astrophysical Journal Letters, 302, L1 (graphics by M.J. Kurtz).

“I would like you to be pleased with the idea and I hope that you will visit my studio to see what I have made,” Johns continued.

At the artist’s invitation, Togodgue and his host parents, Rita Delgado and Jeff Ruskin (who also teach at his school), went to see the painting at Johns’s studio. Togodgue was thrilled and posed for a photo with the piece, which perfectly reproduces his original drawing.

“I’m not an art critic, but I did like the way Jasper incorporated Jéan-Marc’s work,” Ruskin told Midnight Publishing Group News in an email.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The artist Brendan O’Connell, the father of Togodgue’s close friend, took issue with an artist of Johns’s renown copying the work of a child without permission. When he found out what had happened, he sent Johns a strongly worded letter, accusing him of intellectual property theft.

“The wealthiest and most respected Titan in the art world taking the personal drawing of an African ingenue” was not a good look in the age of Black Lives Matter, O’Connell wrote. He suggested Johns create a foundation to support Togodgue and other young athletes and artists from Cameroon.

Detail of Jasper Johns, <em>Slice</em> (2020), featured in "Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror" at the Whitney. Photo by Ben Davis.

Detail of Jasper Johns, Slice (2020), featured in “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror” at the Whitney. Photo by Ben Davis.

Conley Rollins, who is an informal representative for Johns, told the Washington Post that Johns had already been discussing what to do for the teenager. But those thoughts—helping pay for Togodgue’s college education, or giving him a preparatory for Slice—had never been relayed to the teenager or his host family.

That’s when lawyers entered the picture. What constitutes fair use of copyrightable material in fine art is a complex question. It’s possible that John’s appropriation of Togodgue’s intellectual property could be considered transformative. It’s equally possible that the artist could have been found to have violated the youngster’s copyright.

Either way, Johns and Togodgue reached an undisclosed settlement for a licensing agreement in August.

“I was happy and relieved that it was settled in the end, although Rita and I maintain that it could have been settled earlier and then the lawyers and strong letters would not have been necessary,” Ruskin said. “Jéan-Marc is looking into studying art in college. He finds it relaxing, and he is proud of the pieces he has finished.”

Jéan-Marc Togodgue and his host parents, Rita Delgado and Jeff Ruskin, with Jasper Johns's <em>Slice</em> at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Photo courtesy of Jeff Ruskin.

Jéan-Marc Togodgue and his host parents, Rita Delgado and Jeff Ruskin, with Jasper Johns’s Slice at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Photo courtesy of Jeff Ruskin.

Today, the work is part of the Whitney’s presentation of “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror,” and is being offered for sale by the artist’s dealer, Matthew Marks Gallery in New York. The proceeds will benefit Johns’s nonprofit, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.

With the legal dispute behind them, Togodgue, Ruskin, and Delgado were able to visit the Whitney and see Slice in the museum’s galleries, where the teenager is credited by name in the wall label.

“We were a very proud mama and papa,” Delgado told the London Times. “We kept telling people who were looking at the piece: ‘Well, if you want to know who did that, right over there, that’s Jéan-Marc!’ It stimulated some wonderful conversations with a whole assortment and variety of art lovers, art historians and art teachers. It was the perfect afternoon.”

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