Jewish heirs fight for Picasso painting sold as Nazis rose to power


As the Nazi regime came to power in Germany and began a campaign of terror against the country’s Jewish population, Karl Adler made a desperate escape plan.

He’d flee Germany with his wife Rosa, according to court documents, and dart between the Netherlands, France and Switzerland as they waited to obtain permanent entry visas to their final destination, Argentina. But every stop along the way was costly, and a steep Nazi “flight tax” on emigrating Jews had stripped Adler, once a successful businessman, of most of his wealth.

War loomed in 1938, and Adler allegedly had no choice but to sell a treasured possession: a painting by Pablo Picasso.

The painting, a Blue Period portrait titled “Woman Ironing,” eventually secured Adler’s passage to Argentina. Now, decades later, his family’s heirs want it back. A lawsuit filed Friday in New York County Supreme Court alleges that the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, where the painting is on display, wrongfully possesses the Picasso as it was sold under the duress of Nazi oppression and asks that it be returned to Adler’s heirs.

“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 lawsuit’s complaint alleges.

An attorney representing Adler’s heirs declined to comment on behalf of the plaintiffs. In a statement, the Guggenheim Foundation contested the lawsuit’s claims.

“The Guggenheim has conducted expansive research and a detailed inquiry in response to this claim, engaged in dialogue with claimants’ counsel over the course of several years, and believes the claim to be without merit,” the statement said.

Adler’s dilemma was a common one faced by emigrating Jews as they fled Nazi Germany, Netherlands-based art detective Arthur Brand told The Washington Post.

“People think always, look, the Nazis [only] went into the houses of Jews, got their paintings, they stole from them, and they sold it or whatever,” said Brand, who helps Jewish families locate stolen artwork. That’s not how the Nazis worked.

In the early years of their regime, the Nazi government targeted Jews with an array of financial penalties and taxes, including a steep wealth tax and a flight tax on the scores of Jewish emigrants leaving Germany to escape persecution before Jewish emigration was banned in 1941. The lawsuit brought by Adler’s heirs also alleges that Adler incurred additional costs as he paid for short-term visas to enter various European countries while waiting to secure a permanent visa for Argentina.

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Adler sold his Picasso painting at a price far below its market value, according to the complaint. In 1931, he valued it around $14,000, according to the lawsuit. In 1938, strapped for cash, he allegedly sold it to a Jewish collector in Paris, Justin Thannhauser, for around $1,500.

“Thannhauser, as a leading art dealer of Picasso, must have known he acquired the Painting for a fire sale price,” the complaint alleges.

Thannhauser asked that “Woman Ironing” be gifted to the Guggenheim after his death, the complaint alleges. He died in 1976, and the museum’s foundation took possession of the painting two years later. “Woman Ironing” has been on continuous display at the Guggenheim in the decades since, the Guggenheim foundation said.

Karl and Rosa Adler died in 1957 and 1946, respectively, according to the complaint, and their three children, who died between 1989 and 1994, bequeathed the family’s inheritance to several relatives and charitable organizations. Thomas Bennigson, one of the Adler’s great-grandsons, learned of the family’s alleged claim to “Woman Ironing” in 2014 and retained a law firm, according to the complaint. Bennigson, seven other relatives and nine nonprofits, all allegedly Adler’s heirs, are the plaintiffs suing the Guggenheim for the painting’s return.

Brand thinks the heirs have a case.

“I think that if the family can prove that, indeed, they didn’t get the market price and that Adler himself had to pay flight taxes or visa [fees]they have a chance to get the painting back,” he added.

But Leila Amineddoleh, a New York-based lawyer who specializes in art and cultural heritage law, told The Post that American judges have been reluctant to void sales using an argument of duress. A descendant of a Jewish family who sold another Picasso painting to flee Germany for Italy lost a similarly argued case against the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018. An appeals court sided with the Met in 2019 but sidestepped the issue, ruling that the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their claim.

“The courts haven’t really given very clear guidance on what a sale under duress is,” Amineddoleh said. It seems that the courts are kind of punting this question and deciding [cases] on other grounds.”

In his statement, the Guggenheim foundation said that two of Adler’s children were on good terms with the foundation and Thannhauser. Before receiving “Woman Ironing,” the foundation said it contacted one of Adler’s sons, who did not raise any concerns about the painting or its sale to Thannhauser. It also said that Adler’s daughter remained in contact with Thannhauser and that the family had entrusted a second painting to his care around the time of the “Woman Ironing” sale.

“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,” the statement said.

Brand said the foundation’s argument doesn’t consider that opinions might change as awareness grows about the various ways Nazi Germany pressured Jewish families to sell their valuables.

“This family … can change its mind, you know,” Brand said. We now understand better the tactics of the Nazis. Although something looked voluntary, it doesn’t always mean that it was really voluntary.

Brand and Amineddoleh said their unique field will continue to develop as historical knowledge grows — and conflicts continue around the globe. The idea of ​​suing to void sales under duress only came about in the last 20 years, Brand said. Amineddoleh said she expects more cases to follow in the fall from more recent conflicts.

“For years to come, we’ll be dealing with objects that were looted from Ukraine,” Amineddoleh said. “Antiquities have been looted from Iraq since the first Gulf War and they’re still circulating in the market … Art, unfortunately, has always been a target.”

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