Suing

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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Sotheby’s Is Suing a Miami Couple for Consigning Millions of Dollars Worth of Allegedly Fake Diego Giacometti Works


Sotheby’s is suing two Florida consignors and an auction house they own for nearly $7 million after several pieces of furniture and decorative art purported to be by Diego Giacometti allegedly turned out to be fake.

The seven works were sold in separate sales over the course of 2016 and 2017. A handwriting expert determined that the provenance documents the consignors submitted with the lots were forged, according to the lawsuit.

Having canceled the sales and refunded the money to the respective buyers, Sotheby’s now wants the consignors—Frederic Thut, his wife Bettina Von Marnitz Thut, and their business, Fine Art Auctions of Miami (FAAM) —to return their proceeds as well.

The Thuts could not be immediately reached for comment and emails to the Miami auction house did not receive a reply.

As part of a “brazen fraudulent scheme,” according to Sotheby’s, Frederic Thut claimed to have purchased a large trove of works, supposedly by Diego Giacometti, brother of the world-renowned sculptor Alberto Giacometti.

Thut then consigned the works to his own auction houses “with no disclosure concerning his own ownership interest in the works.” The lots were then purchased by Thut’s wife, who soon thereafter consigned them to Sotheby’s at far higher estimates than their sales prices at FAAM, according to the complaint.

Sotheby’s said it discovered the works were counterfeit in 2018 after one of the buyers enlisted an expert, Denis Vincenot, who works closely with the artist’s estate and deemed the purported Giacometti works inauthentic. The auction house claims that Von Marnitz Thut was required to return any proceeds paid to her in connection with the sale once it was canceled.

By its own admission, Sotheby’s initially pushed back on the findings, citing the “strength” of the provenance documents the Thuts had provided. Those included letters from the legendary New York dealer Pierre Matisse and from Serge Matta, brother of Surrealist painter Roberto Matta, as well as a certificate of authenticity by James Lord, author of a book about Alberto Giacometti.

But Sotheby’s employees changed their minds after hiring a handwriting expert. The consultant concluded that the documents purportedly written by Matisse were inconsistent with samples sourced from his archives in the Morgan Library. It was also found that the Matisse, Matta, and Lord documents were all written by the same hand. Finally, the presence of counterfeit protection system coding in the letterhead was introduced to all printers in the 1990s, and therefore could not have appeared in 1982, when the letters were dated.

“Sotheby’s had engaged the handwriting expert to convince Vincenot of the authenticity of defendants’ consignments,” reads the complaint, “only to learn that the documents supposedly proving the provenance were themselves forgeries.”

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A Street Artist Is Suing the Vatican—and Turned Down a Meeting With the Pope—After She Says It Used Her Art Without Permission


Roman street artist Alessia Babrow is suing the Vatican after its coin and postage agency printed her artwork on a stamp without permission.

Babrow’s image depicts a painting by 19th-century German artist Heinrich Hofmann of Jesus with her own tag of a heart reading “just use it” written across his chest. She pasted the work, which she made in 2019, near the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II bridge by the Vatican, but never expected it to catch the eye of church officials.

Then the Vatican issued a special stamp for Easter 2020 featuring the street art piece. It credited Hofmann, but not Babrow, who first learned of the stamp through Instagram.

“I couldn’t believe it. I honestly thought it was a joke,” Babrow told the Associated Press. “The real shock was that you don’t expect certain things from certain organizations.”

The Philatelic and Numismatic Office of the Vatican City State didn't ask permission to use Alessia Babrow's street art based on a 19th century Heinrich Hoffmann painting for a 2020 Easter stamp. Image courtesy of the Philatelic and Numismatic Office of the Vatican City State.

The Philatelic and Numismatic Office of the Vatican City State didn’t ask permission to use Alessia Babrow’s street art based on a 19th century Heinrich Hoffmann painting for a 2020 Easter stamp. Image courtesy of the Philatelic and Numismatic Office of the Vatican City State.

Mauro Olivieri, director of the Vatican Philatelic Office, reportedly spotted Babrow’s work while riding by on a moped. He told Il Mio Papa magazine that he stopped in his tracks, undeterred by honking traffic, to photograph the piece. The Vatican, which did not return a request for comment, does not currently acknowledge Babrow’s authorship of the image on its website.

The artist said that when she reached out to the Vatican, she was offered an audience with the pope and some free stamps in lieu of compensation. Babrow sent three letters asking the Vatican for recognition of her copyright before taking legal action, according to Vaccari News.

The artist has been making street art since 2013, and said she usually leaves her work unsigned. “I am considered a mix between Marina Abramovic and Banksy,” Babrow told Drago. “At least this is what some of the critics have written, and whether it is true or not, I am flattered!

Babrow is seeking €130,000 ($160,000) in damages. The case is set to be heard in court on December 7.

The Vatican turned his Alessia Babrow street art piece, seen here near the Vatican, into a 2020 Easter stamp without her consent. Photo by Alessia Babrow.

The Vatican turned this Alessia Babrow street art piece, seen here near the Vatican, into a 2020 Easter stamp. Photo by Alessia Babrow.

The Vatican is selling the stamps for €1.15 ($1.40), and has issued a print run of 80,000 stamps, according to Artribune, which first reported news of the stamp’s appearance in February 2020. The first run reportedly sold out.

Babrow’s lawsuit comes amid a growing push by street artists to protect the copyright of their work. Banksy won a 2019 case against an Italian museum selling merchandise based on his work, though experienced a setback this year when the European Union Intellectual Property Office ruled that his trademark was invalid, scuttling his lawsuit against a greeting card company.

“Suing the Vatican was not really part of my plans,” Babrow told Il Fatto Quotidiano, noting that she has been known to allow the use of her work for free, but not without permission. “Unfortunately, this story is bigger than me.”

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