Jewish heirs fight for sold Picasso painting when Nazis came to power

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

He would flee Germany with his wife Rosa, according to court documents, and fly between the Netherlands, France and Switzerland while they waited to obtain a permanent visa for their final destination, Argentina. But every stopover along the way was costly, and a hefty Nazi flight tax on emigrating Jews had stripped Adler, once a successful businessman, of most of his wealth.

In 1938 war loomed and Adler reportedly had no choice but to sell a prized possession: a painting by Pablo Picasso.

The painting, a Blue Period portrait titled “Woman Ironing,” ultimately secured Adler’s passage to Argentina. Now, decades later, his family’s heirs want it back. A lawsuit filed Friday in the New York County Supreme Court alleges that the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, where the painting is on display, has wrongful possession of the Picasso as it was sold under duress from Nazi oppression, asking for restitution to Adler’s heirs.

“Adler would not have sold the painting for the time and price he did, but for the Nazi persecution to which he and his family had been and would still be subjected,” the lawsuit’s indictment alleges.

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

“The Guggenheim has conducted extensive research and detailed investigation into this allegation, engaged in dialogue with plaintiffs’ attorneys over several years, and believes that the allegation is baseless,” the statement said.

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

“People always think, 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 find stolen artwork. “That’s not how the Nazis worked.”

In the early years of their regime, the Nazi government targeted Jews with a series of financial penalties and taxes, including a high wealth tax and an air passenger tax on the dozens of Jewish emigrants who left Germany to escape persecution. before Jewish emigration was banned in 1941. The lawsuit filed by Adler’s heirs also alleges that Adler incurred additional expenses when he paid for short-term visas to enter several European countries while awaiting a permanent visa to Argentina.

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According to the complaint, Adler sold his Picasso painting at a price well below market value. In 1931, according to the lawsuit, he estimated it at about $14,000. In 1938, he reportedly sold it to a Jewish collector in Paris, Justin Thannhauser, for about $1,500.

“Thannhauser, as a leading art dealer of Picasso, must have known that he purchased the painting for a ransom,” the suit alleges.

Thannhauser requested that “Woman Ironing” be donated to the Guggenheim after his death, the indictment alleges. He died in 1976 and two years later the foundation of the museum took possession of the painting. “Woman Ironing” has been on continuous display at the Guggenheim for the past several decades, according to the Guggenheim Foundation.

Karl and Rosa Adler died in 1957 and 1946 respectively, according to the complaint, and their three children, who died between 1989 and 1994, donated the family’s legacy to various 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 hired a law firm, according to the indictment. Bennigson, seven other family members and nine nonprofits, all reportedly Adler’s heirs, are the plaintiffs suing the Guggenheim for the return of the painting.

Brand thinks the heirs have a case.

“I think if the family can prove that they indeed did not get the market price and that Adler himself had to pay flight tax or visa [fees]do they have a chance of getting the painting back,” he added.

But Leila Amineddoleh, a New York-based attorney specializing in art and cultural heritage law, told The Post that US judges have been reluctant to invalidate sales on a coercive argument. A descendant of a Jewish family who sold another Picasso painting to flee Germany for Italy lost a similar suit against the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018. waited too long to file their claim.

“The courts haven’t really given clear guidance on what constitutes a forced sale,” Amineddoleh said. “It looks like the courts are looking into this question a bit and deciding [cases] on other grounds.”

In its statement, the Guggenheim Foundation said 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 expressed no concerns about the painting or its sale to Thannhauser. It also stated that Adler’s daughter kept in touch with Thannhauser and that the family entrusted him with a second painting around the time of the “Woman Ironing” auction.

“There is no evidence that Karl Adler or his three children, who are now deceased, ever considered the sale unfair or considered Thannhauser an actor acting in bad faith,” the statement said.

Brand said the foundation’s argument doesn’t assume opinions can 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,” said Brand. “We now better understand the tactics of the Nazis. Even if something seemed voluntary, it doesn’t always mean it was actually voluntary.”

Brand and Amineddoleh said their unique field will continue to evolve as historical knowledge grows — and conflicts continue around the world. The idea of ​​suing a foreclosure sale only emerged in the past 20 years, Brand said. Amineddoleh said she expects more cases to follow due to more recent conflicts.

“In the coming years, we will be dealing with objects looted from Ukraine,” said Amineddoleh. “Antiquities have been looted from Iraq since the first Gulf War and they are still circulating in the marketplace…Art, unfortunately, has always been a target.”

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