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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Is Jeff Koons as Passionate About Uniqlo as He Sounds? Why Is This Unicorn Named After Picasso? + Other Questions I Have About the Week’s Art News

Curiosities is a column where I comment on the art news of the week, sometimes about stories that were too small or strange to make the cut, sometimes just thoughts on the circus.

Below, some questions posed by the events of the last week…


1) What Is Pacaso?

The logo of property co-ownership sales and management platform Pacaso on a smartphone screen. (Photo Illustration by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The logo of property co-ownership sales and management platform Pacaso. (Photo Illustration by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Founded only last year, Pacaso is, I’m told, the youngest start-up ever to reach “unicorn” status—a valuation of more than $1 billion. A glorified time-share scheme that promises to “democratize second home-ownership,” its mission is to finally let America’s wealthier enclaves know the joys of having your neighborhood become an Airbnb hotspot by selling fractionalized stakes in mansions in places like Napa Valley.

Since you are reading an art site, you are probably already wondering, “Is the name inspired by… you know…” The answer is yes. And the answer to your follow-up question—”does Pacaso’s innovative model of fractional real-estate investment carry on the legacy of Cubism?”—is also yes.

From the company’s Our Story page:

We are inspired by Pablo Picasso’s revolutionary thinking, the way he challenged norms in early 20th century art. He is credited with co-creating Cubism, which brings together individual elements to create a new and innovative whole. That resonated with how we’re approaching second home ownership. We decided on Pacaso to honor Picasso’s legacy of innovation.

And, truly, what an honor it is! Per Planet Money, “No Pacaso” signs are quickly becoming a hot accessory in the nation’s tonier areas. Some poor sap who bought 1/8th of a $4 million mansion recounts showing up for his slot at his new vacation home—which had been dubbed the “Chardonnay” house by Pacaso, and is described as having “a distinctly modern and high-tech feel”—only to be greeted by a sign that read, “The Pacaso House Is the Big One on the Right With No Soul.”


2) What’s Jasper Johns’s Flag Got to Do With Jurassic Park?

Installation view of the "Jasper Johns and the Whitney" in "Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror" at the Whitney. Photo by Ben Davis.

Installation view of the “Jasper Johns and the Whitney” in “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror” at the Whitney. Photo by Ben Davis.

Here’s a bit of trivia I didn’t know until I went to the “Jasper Johns and the Whitney” room of the New York museum’s big Jasper Johns show. Just after Michael Crichton wrote and directed the original Westworld in 1973—but long before he wrote Disclosure, created ER, or became one of the world’s most high-profile climate-change deniers—he had a side hustle writing art catalogues. Specifically, the catalogue for Jasper Johns’s 1977 Whitney retrospective.

Let me tell you the story. Johns wanted someone to write about him who was “not an art critic.” By his own admission, Crichton had never read an art catalogue. Asking around, he couldn’t find anyone who had ever actually read a catalogue either, and decided that what people wanted was facts about the artist and the works—“none of that art interpretation stuff.”

Copy of the 1977 catalogue for Jasper Johns's Whitney show, on display at the Whitney. Photo by Ben Davis.

Copy of the 1977 catalogue for Jasper Johns’s Whitney show, on display at the Whitney. Photo by Ben Davis.

Honestly, this is not bad advice! I hate it when you open a catalogue looking some helpful historical context instead get 30 pages of musings on Giles Deleuze or Fred Moten.

Despite this “just the facts” approach, Crichton’s catalogue contains a pretty fun account of a car trip he took with Johns where the artist resolutely refuses to offer directions to get where they are going:

Once I drove him from his house at Stony Point into New York City. We were going to some destination I did not know. I asked him how to get there. “Well, I’m not sure, I’ll know when I see it, as we go.”

We drove for a while longer, crossing the George Washington Bridge. I asked again. “Well, I don’t know. Turn right here, and we’ll figure out the rest later.”

I love how closely the description of a Jasper Johns outing follows his well-known art-making mantra: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it [Repeat].” Or, as Crichton narrates Johns’s thought process, “We are going down this street now, and when we get to the end, we will decide which way to turn, and having decided that, we will wait until it is time to make another decision.”

Jasper Johns: important painter; demanding road trip companion.

Crichton accepted a small painting from Johns in lieu of payment, and according to author Don Thompson, he later turned down $5 million for it from Larry Gagosian. For that reason, the 1977 Whitney Museum catalogue is sometimes regarded as the most lucrative piece of art writing ever done.


3) Is the Male Gaze in the NFT World Really Going to Be Decentered by Playboy?

Playboy has enthusiastically gotten into the NFT game. On the one hand, it is looking to sell its back catalogue of vintage cheesecake as NFTs; on the other, it is out to smash the patriarchy.

Specifically, the magazine has partnered with the Sevens Foundation on a new NFT commission (open to applicants through October 1!) called “The Art of Gender and Sexuality.” The initiative, we read, recognizes that “the fight for equality and representation that continues to define the art world at large is particularly urgent in the fast-moving world of NFTs, a primarily cis-male dominated space.”

I would make a joke here about how “I support Playboy for its social justice mission to decenter the digital art world” is the new “I read Playboy for the articles,” but, you know, Playboy did publish some pretty good articles.


4) Will Koons’s Uniqlo Line Redefine Basic Fashion?

“Sophisticated pop artworks by one of the greatest contemporary artists, Jeff Koons!” boasts the website of Uniqlo, the fast-fashion juggernaut from Japan that has just launched a Koons capsule collection in coordination with the soon-to-open “Jeff Koons: Lost in America” show in Qatar.

The exclamation point certainly proves they are excited—but what’s so “sophisticated” about these works?

Craft, craft, it’s all about craft, according to the interview with Koons on the project’s micro-site (which also features interviews with curators Massimiliano Gioni, Elena Geuna, and Yuko Hasegawa). We’re talking here about the craft of… printing pictures of Balloon Dog and Rabbit onto basic cotton Ts and hoodies.

Here’s Koons waxing Koonsian about the globe-spanning merch collab in a series of words that sound as if they have been put into Google translate from English to a foreign language and back again (but he speaks with such conviction!):

I enjoy very much how Uniqlo is in contact with my generation but also a younger generation and it really communicates across cultures and everybody enjoys very much their clothing. We are just people who are seeking to be connected with each other. By working with Uniqlo, making a T-shirt that can be connected and communicate to somebody else that I care about them—I embrace that opportunity.

Of the collection’s various options, my favorite has to be the Jeff Koons sweatshirt featuring his work Play-doh (1994–2014). Not exactly pushing the boundaries of graphic design, as far as I can tell, it offers the giant words “JEFF KOONS” next to an image of sculpture.

I assure you that as a work of art, the massive, precision-designed Play-doh actually is impressive and huge and detailed in its craftsmanship. But rather than seamlessly “communicating across cultures,” when its image is printed without scale on a shirt, like nothing so much a sturdy pile of rainbow doggy-doo (maybe from Flower Puppy).

Screenshot of Jeff Koons x Uniqlo sweatshirt featuring Play-doh.

Screenshot of Jeff Koons x Uniqlo sweatshirt featuring Play-doh on the Uniqlo website.

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From Banksy’s Summer ‘Spraycation’ to Yayoi Kusama’s Typhoon-Tossed Pumpkin: The Best and Worst of the Art World This Week

Sotheby’s Sets Out fo Sin City The auction house is partnering with MGM Resorts in Vegas for a $100 million sale of Picasso works.

Banksy’s Summer ‘Spraycation’ – The anonymous artist confirmed authorship of a string of murals that cropped up in English coastal towns earlier this week.

It’s Britney Bitch  Just as the pop princess won a major victory in court, the Art Angle delves into artists’ fascination with Britney Spears.

Introducing Art House – A new art destination will set up shop in the former Barneys flagship location on Madison Avenue, offering a dedicated art fair in November.

Frieze Sculpture Returns to Regents Park – The beloved en plein air art exhibition is free and open to the public, offering a bevy of fantastical works at the storied London site.

Christie’s Evangelizes CryptoPunks in Hong Kong – The auction house announced it will now offer NFTs in Asia, becoming the first major auction house to do so.

Superblue Brings Super Art – The immersive art organization is bringing telegenic, interactive installations about climate change to both London and New York this fall, courtesy DRIFT and Studio Swine, respectively.


Students Sue Over Lost Studios – Students at the Glasgow School of Art are suing the institution for cutting their degree show and limiting access to studios during the global pandemic.

ICA London Director Exits – Stefan Kalmár, the first-ever non-British director to lead the museum is stepping down after five years, citing Brexit and a rise in racism around the country.

Art Council Members Resign En Masse – Four members of Hong Kong’s Arts Council, including an artist who defended Ai Weiwei’s artwork, resigned from their posts as the country’s freedoms are increasingly limited.

Book Fair Cancelled – New York’s beloved Antiquarian Book Fair has been called off due to mounting concerns over the super-transmissible Delta variant.

Ancient Relic Reveals Grisly Ritual – Archaeologists discovered a relic suggesting that ancient Romans fed prisoners to lions as part of executions.

Typhoon Wrecks Kusama Pumpkin – Strong gusts of wind from a typhoon in Japan sent Yayoi Kusama’s famed pumpkin sculpture flying into the sea.

Florida Politician Scuttles Public Art Show – The mayor of Coral Gables, Florida forced artists Sandra Ramos and Cai Guo-Qiang to be cut from a public art show because he disagreed with their sympathetic comments toward communism.

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Police Get a Stunning Tip on the Fate of a Picasso Stolen From an Athens Museum + Other Stories

Art Industry News is a daily digest of the most consequential developments coming out of the art world and art market. Here’s what you need to know on this Thursday, February 11.


Philanthropist to Donate $5 Million to Help Diversify Museums  – The Indian human rights activist and gallerist Amar Singh has pledged to donate $5 million in artworks by women, LGBTQ+, and minority artists before 2025. “Museums are safe-keepers of culture and humanity,” Singh said of the commitment. “But the reality is that they have historically failed us. They have not represented humanity across the board.” The philanthropist has already donated a six-figure painting by Maria Berrio to LACMA, and a portrait of the US Inauguration poet Amanda Gorman by Raphael Adjetey Adjei Mayne to Harvard. (Vanity Fair)

Grantmaker Pulls $2 Million Grant From Poland’s “LGBT-Free Zone” – Norway Grants has pulled €1.65 million ($2 million) in European heritage funding from the Polish region of Podkarpackie after local councilors voted for a resolution to “resist the promotion of LGBT ideology.” The resolution conflicts with the grant’s founding principles of respect for all human rights. The grant was officially withdrawn last year but is just now coming to light. (The Art Newspaper)

Oaxaca Museum Staff In Standoff With Governing Foundation – A foundation that supports the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Oaxaca, Mexico, is caught in a terse standoff with museum employees. The museum’s director, Cecilia Mingüer, says that Los Amigos del MACO has not paid staff salaries for 10 months, and is vying to shut the institution down. In protest, Mingüer has been locking herself into the building at night. (TAN)

Greek Police Get a Lead on a Stolen Picasso – A new investigation has led Greek authorities to believe that Picasso’s 1939 Head of a Woman, which was taken from Athens’s National Gallery in 2012, may still be in the country. Police believe the stolen work was offered for $20 million on the country’s illicit market, but that it never found a buyer because of its high profile. Authorities hope to see the work returned before the reopening of the National Gallery in March. (ARTnews)


Ali Banisadr Joins Victoria Miro – Victoria Miro has added the Brooklyn-based painter Ali Banisadr to its roster, and will hold his first solo exhibition in 2022. Thaddaeus Ropac gallery and Kasmin Gallery will continue to co-represent the artist. (Press release

Orlando Museum Names New Executive Director — The museum has hired Aaron De Groft, formerly head of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary, as its new CEO and director. De Groft will replace Glen Gentele, who left the museum last February amid a clash with the board. (Orlando Sentinel)


Asian Art Museum Returns Looted Objects – San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum will return two ancient temple lintels to Thailand. The museum removed the religious relics from view after they were alerted by US authorities in 2017 that they might have been illegally exported from Thailand. They have now forfeited the objects to the government, which will work with Thai authorities to repatriate them. (Courthouse News)

An Ancient Musical Conch Is Played Once Again – Experts have discovered that an 18,000-year-old conch in Toulouse’s Natural History Museum was actually an ancient wind instrument that could have been used for ceremonial purposes. The vessel was originally archived as a cup, but after re-examination, experts found it to have been partially hand crafted and painted, and brought in a professional horn player to give it life once more. (Smithsonian)


Google Wants You to Hear Colors – A new Google Arts & Culture project called “Play a Kandinsky” explores Kandinsky’s synaesthesia by imagining what the artist might have heard when he looked at color. Based on Kandinsky’s own writings , the interactive tool lets you experience the sounds of his 1925 work Yellow Red Blue by clicking into different parts of the painting. (CNET) 

See Inside Buontalenti’s Grotto in Florence – You can now explore the Italian Renaissance architect Buontalenti’s grotto and its breathtaking Tuscan Mannerist sculptures at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence online. The site has been digitized in high-definition 3D, and visitors can walk around inside using their cell phones or computers. (Press release)

The Grotta Buontalenti in 3D. Image courtesy the Uffizi Galleries.

The Grotta Buontalenti in 3D. Image courtesy the Uffizi Galleries.

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