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Looted Picasso at heart of legal battle

By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
Published December 25, 2002

A prominent Chicago art collector who has donated extensively to the Art
Institute of Chicago has emerged at the center of a dispute over a $10
million painting by Pablo Picasso that was looted by the Nazis during World
War II.

On Friday, a California Superior Court judge will decide whether Marilynn
Alsdorf, who also has served as a trustee for the Museum of Contemporary
Art, may temporarily keep Picasso's 1922 oil "Femme en blanc" (also known as
"Femme assise"), which she purchased in 1975 for $357,000.

Next month, the judge will rule on whether the painting must be returned to
California, where the heir of a Jewish woman who owned the work before World
War II has filed a lawsuit claiming that the Picasso was stolen from a Paris
gallery owner in 1940 and was known as early as 1947 to have been looted.
The suit charges that Alsdorf and the Los Angeles art gallery that has
represented her in marketing the Picasso over the past year were involved in
settlement talks before abruptly ending them and arranging for the painting
to be returned to Chicago from California. This was done, the suit alleges,
so that the painting would not be subject to a new law taking effect in
California on Jan. 1. That law retroactively extends the statute of
limitations on claims against museums and galleries regarding Nazi-looted
art and is regarded as the most far-reaching of its kind in the United
Alsdorf, through her attorneys, maintains that she and her late husband,
James, purchased the work in good faith. Her lawyers question whether the
Los Angeles heir, Thomas C. Bennigson, has a tenable claim on the work, and
say that the return of the painting to Chicago last week had nothing to do
with the current suit.
Judge David P. Yaffe last Friday issued a temporary restraining order
preventing the Los Angeles gallery from moving the painting out of
California, though it was later learned that the piece already had arrived
in Chicago.
"The painting was moved to Chicago specifically because of this suit," said
E. Randol Schoenberg, the attorney representing Bennigson, whose
grandmother, Carlota Landsberg, fled Berlin in 1938, storing the Picasso
with the Paris art dealer J.K. Thannhauser.
"I was hired the week of Dec. 10 and made arrangements to meet with the
lawyer representing the gallery [David Tunkl Fine Art] to look at the
painting," Schoenberg added.
"The next thing I heard is that the painting was being moved to Chicago."
Alsdorf's attorneys, however, claim they were blindsided by Schoenberg's
court filing.
"At this point we're still attempting to review the allegations," said
Richard H. Chapman, one of Alsdorf's attorneys. "Nobody's trying to take the
painting anywhere or trying to sell it.
"Mrs. Alsdorf feels that she has not done anything wrong. . . . The [court]
documents present a compelling story, and she's interested in resolving it."
After the Nazis rose to power in Germany, Carlota Landsberg, who was Jewish,
began preparing to leave the country, placing her Picasso with the Parisian
art dealer Thannhauser, according to court documents.
"As I remember very clearly, and as I therefore can confirm to you in
writing, in 1938 or 1939 you sent your painting by Picasso, of a woman, from
the so-called classical period of the artist, to me in my house in Paris,"
Thannhauser wrote to Landsberg in 1958, after she had settled in the U.S.
and resumed her search for her stolen art.
"At this time, as we were forced to leave our home in Paris in 1939, your
Picasso hung in the middle of a small wall. Upon the occupation of Paris in
1940, when we were no longer in Paris and the house was closed, the entire
contents of the four-story building--and with it your painting--were
French dealer spurs inquiry
Thannhauser's files, housed by the Silva Casa Foundation in Geneva, include
a photograph of the interior of Thannhauser's home showing the painting on
the wall. The foundation also holds a book published in 1927 by Klinkhardt &
Biermann containing a photograph of the Picasso and listing its owner as
Robert Landsberg, Carlota's husband, who died in 1932.
But the questionable provenance of the Picasso did not come into play until
last December, when a French art dealer interested in buying the painting
made an inquiry with the Art Loss Register, a London-based organization that
often helps Holocaust survivors and their heirs locate stolen art. After
learning that Alsdorf's agent, Tunkl, had shipped the Picasso to Switzerland
for possible sale, the Art Loss Register located Thannhauser's records at
the Silva Casa Foundation, according to a court statement by Sarah Jackson,
the register's historic claims director.
Jackson told the French art dealer that she needed to contact the current
owner, and Alsdorf informed the register that James Alsdorf, her late
husband, had purchased the Picasso from the Stephen Hahn Gallery in New York
in 1975.
Jackson subsequently learned that the painting previously had belonged not
to Thannhauser but to Landsberg, because files in the Wiedergutmachungsamt,
or restitution office, in Berlin indicated that Landsberg had been paid
100,000 Deutschmarks (about $27,300) by the German government in
compensation for the theft of the Picasso. That payment would not affect the
current claim, Schoenberg said.
The file also contained a letter from a German official, dated Feb. 22,
1965, asking "that the Picasso be struck out of Thannhauser's compensation
claim as it belonged to Carlota Landsberg," Jackson said in her court
"Considerable information was found in the archives in Berlin indicating
that Thannhauser's property at 5 Miromesnil, Paris, was removed as part of
the Mobel-Aktion," or the systematic removal of Jewish-owned property by
Nazi forces.
Previous owner died in '94
Bennigson, who is Landsberg's grandson, says he is the only surviving heir
of his grandmother, who died in 1994 in New York. Bennigson learned about
the looted Picasso last summer, after the Art Loss Register informed him
that the painting had been located and was being offered for sale by the
David Tunkl Fine Art gallery on Melrose Place in Los Angeles.
"This was the first time that I, or any member of [my] family, had learned
of the location of the painting since 1939," Bennigson, a law student at the
University of California-Berkeley, said in a court statement.
Bennigson retained Schoenberg to represent him earlier this month. Neither
Tunkl nor his attorney were available for comment.
The lawsuit contends that Alsdorf's representatives recently broke off
settlement negotiations that had been under way with the Art Loss Register,
but Chapman, Alsdorf's attorney, dismissed the relevance of any such talks.
"I don't know that Mrs. Alsdorf was even party to the settlement discussions
or had any knowledge of them," he said.
Said Schoenberg, "The bottom line is that under U.S. law, a thief cannot
make good title.
"So even if Mrs. Alsdorf is a bona fide purchaser, there is overwhelming
evidence that the painting was stolen and was listed as such immediately
after World War II.
"Her recourse would be to take action against the dealer she bought the
painting from.
"Our job is to get the painting back to the family that owned it before it
was stolen."

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