December 27, 2002 (SF Chronicle)
Oakland man claims a Picasso/Grandmother's painting now worth $10 million was looted by Nazis
Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer
The year was 1938 or '39. Like many Jews, Carlota Landsberg knew it was
time to leave Berlin. In preparation for her escape from the Nazis, the
widow sent her prized Picasso to a Paris art dealer for safekeeping.
Then she fled.
Nearly 65 years later, the Picasso has surfaced. And with a potential
value of more than $10 million, the 1922 painting is the subject of a
legal battle in California between Landsberg's grandson, who is a UC
Berkeley law school student, and a Chicago widow who says "Femme en Blanc"
belongs to her.
After Carlota Landsberg escaped the Nazis, it was 20 years before she and
the Paris art dealer found each other again. In a 1958 letter, he told
Landsberg that the entire contents of his gallery -- including her
painting -- had been stolen during the Nazi occupation of Paris.
And there the tale might have ended had the world been willing to forget
about property looted by the Nazis -- particularly valuable works of art.
But lists were made, and eyes kept watch.
Decades passed. Then one year ago, "Femme en Blanc" -- depicting a woman
in whites and grays as melancholy as the painting's history -- turned up
It had been brought to France for possible sale. The would-be buyer
contacted the London office of the Art Loss Register, a vast database of
lost and stolen art. The painting, also known as "Femme Assise," was on
its list of looted works. Its owner, Carlota Landsberg, was also named.
"We found where Mrs. Landsberg resided in New York," said Anna Kisluk,
director of art services at the Manhattan branch of the Art Loss Register.
But Landsberg had died in 1994. A receptionist at her residence hotel
remembered that a grandson, Tom Bennigson, had visited her and agreed to
contact him. Bennigson lived in Oakland and studied law at UC Berkeley.
Bennigson knew nothing of his grandmother's painting and didn't know that
she had apparently tried several times over the years to find it.
For a time, as it turned out, Landsberg and "Femme en Blanc" had been just
blocks away from each other in New York.
Then in 1975, James Alsdorf of Chicago bought the painting from the
Stephen Hahn Gallery in Manhattan for $375,000. He brought it home, where
the painting remained until last year.
After Alsdorf died, his widow, Marilyn Alsdorf, hoped to sell the
painting. She placed it with David Tunkl, a Los Angeles art dealer.
It was Tunkl who brought "Femme en Blanc" to Paris last year, then took it
back to Los Angeles when it was found to be on the Art Loss Register's
Art experts regard "Femme en Blanc" as an example of Picasso's
neoclassicism but not one of his great works.
Yet, Alsdorf believes the work is hers to keep or sell.
Bennigson, who is Landsberg's only heir, says the painting is his. For
much of 2002, the two sides tried to settle the issue out of court.
On Dec. 18, as those talks broke down, Tunkl sent the painting back to
On Dec. 19, Bennigson sued Alsdorf and Tunkl in Los Angeles Superior
Court, alleging that they sent "Femme en Blanc" to Illinois to avoid a
California law to take effect Jan. 1, 2003. It extends the statute of
limitations for claims against galleries for the recovery of art looted by
the Nazis until Dec. 31, 2010.
In the suit, Bennigson asks for the return of his grandmother's painting,
or $10 million.
E-mail Nanette Asimov at email@example.com.
Copyright 2002 SF Chronicle
MARCH 14, 2003 | LITIGATION
Judge May Toss Legal Fight for Picasso Work
By Christina Landers
Daily Journal Staff Writer LOS ANGELES - Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Victor Persón on Thursday appeared to be leaning against trying in California a dispute over a Nazi-looted Picasso painting. Bennigson v. Alsdorf, BC2872941 (L.A. Super. Ct., filed Dec. 19, 2002).
Persón's tentative ruling quashing the case for lack of personal jurisdiction favors defendant Marilyn Alsdorf, a 77-year-old Chicago resident who returned the painting, titled "Femme en blanc," to Illinois after a court fight broke out here.
Thomas S. Bennigson sued Alsdorf, who has owned the Picasso for decades, after learning that the painting had belonged to his late grandmother before the Nazis confiscated it.
Alsdorf had been trying to sell the painting through the Los Angeles-based art gallery of David Tunkl when a potential buyer uncovered its background.
Persón was prepared to grant Alsdorf's motion, until E. Randol Schoenberg, Bennigson's attorney and partner with Los Angeles' Burris & Schoenberg, persuaded Persón to consider other arguments.
"We are pleased with his tentative ruling and feel confident he will file it," said Polly Towill of Los Angeles' Sheppard Mullin, an attorney for Alsdorf. Former L.A. District Attorney Robert H. Philibosian, also with Sheppard Mullin, recently joined Alsdorf's legal team, which also includes Richard H. Chapman of Chicago's Fagel & Haber.
"The law couldn't be more clear that the state has jurisdiction in this case," Schoenberg said.
© 2003 Daily Journal Corporation. All rights reserved.