Prized

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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