DECEMBER 23, 2002 | LITIGATION
Order Keeps Picasso Work in L.A.
By Christina Landers
Daily Journal Staff Writer LOS ANGELES - The grandson of a Jewish woman who fled Berlin during World War II has won a temporary restraining order to keep a Picasso painting in Los Angeles while he presses his claim that the Nazis stole the art from his family.
Judge David P. Yaffe's order Friday stops the painting, worth an estimated $10 million, from being shipped to Chicago, where it would be exempt from a new California law. The law extends through 2003 the statute of limitations on all claims against museums and galleries over Nazi-looted artworks.
The plaintiff, Boalt Hall law student Thomas C. Benningson, said he and his family had no idea what happened to the painting until he was contacted by a London-based register that tracks down lost and stolen art from the World War II era, including Nazi confiscations.
"This was the first time I, or any member of my family, had learned of the location of the painting since 1939," Benningson said in a court declaration.
"We are very pleased that Judge Yaffe ordered the painting to be returned to Los Angeles for safekeeping," said E. Randol Schoenberg of Los Angeles' Burris & Schoenberg who represents the plaintiff. "The gallery where it had been for the past year showed me a document this week saying a shipping company picked it up on Wednesday. I'm trying to track it down and show them this TRO."
Schoenberg filed a complaint on his client's behalf Friday, seeking return of the painting, known as "Femme en Blanc" or "Femme Assise," or $10 million compensation.
Attorney Stephen Bernard of Los Angeles' Nagelberg & Associates in Los Angeles represents David Tunkl, owner of Tunkl Fine Art, the gallery where, until recently, the painting was up for sale, and Chicago resident Marilyn Alsdorf, the seller.
Bernard did not return requests for comment.
Schoenberg's complaint alleges Tunkl tried to ship the painting to Alsdorf - whose late husband purchased it from a New York gallery in 1975 - as soon as he learned that Benningson had retained counsel.
Benningson is the only grandchild of the painting's former owner, Carlota Landsberg. He says he was named sole heir to her estate when she died in 1994.
Landsberg sent the painting out of Berlin to well-known Parisian art dealer J. K. Thannhauser for safekeeping in 1938 or 1939 when she fled Germany, fearing persecution.
The Nazis took the painting from Thannhauser when they invaded France in 1940, and all efforts by Landsberg and Thannhauser to locate and recover it failed, according to the complaint.
This year, David Tunkl, owner of the Tunkl Fine Art gallery in Los Angeles, sent the painting to Paris to show it to a prospective buyer. As a result of the Paris viewing, the complaint alleges, the Art Loss Register in London discovered the painting.
The register- the world's largest private database and recovery service for lost and stolen art- recognized the Picasso from a list of Nazi-looted paintings that had been lost since World War II. It contacted Benningson to tell him the painting had been found and was for sale.
In a declaration, Sarah Jackson, historic claims director of the Art Loss Register, says Thannhauser's diary mentions that the Picasso was stolen from his Paris house and lists Landsberg as the painting's owner.
The Art Loss Register had been negotiating a settlement agreement with Alsdorf and Tunkl for several months and arranged to meet last week to discuss the case, according to the application for the restraining order. On Wednesday, however, Bernard told Schoenberg "that all settlement offers were being taken off the table and the painting was 'on its way to Chicago,'" the application said.
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