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Oakland man awaits fate of Picasso <http://www.oaklandtribune.com/Stories/0,1413,82%257E1726%257E1077726,00.html

Court to rule on claim to painting, taken by Nazis then sold
by Glenn Chapman , STAFF WRITER
Saturday, December 28, 2002 - A Pablo Picasso painting pilfered by Nazis during World War II is to remain in the home of a Chicago art aficionado until a California court decides whether it rightfully belongs to the original owner's Oakland heir.

Prominent collector Marilyn Alsdorf must safeguard Picasso's "Femme en blanc" while Thomas Bennigson's claim to the 1922 painting, valued at $10 million, is considered, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Yaffe decreed Friday.

Bennigson is the grandson of a Jewish woman who sent her precious Picasso to Paris gallery owner J.K. Thannhauser to store, before fleeing Berlin in 1938 or 1939. Germany's Third Reich invaded France in 1940, and emptied Thannhauser's home.

A photograph in records left by Thannhauser shows "Femme en blanc," also known as "Femme assise," displayed on a wall in his home.

In a letter written to Carlota Landsberg in 1958, the dealer reportedly confirmed receiving the Picasso's "classic period" painting from her and informed Landsberg the entire contents of his 4-story home were stolen after the Nazis took Paris.

Alsdorf and her late husband, James, bought the artwork from a New York gallery in 1975 for $357,000, according to court documents. It was after Alsdorf sent the Picasso to Los Angeles to be sold by David Tunkl Fine Art gallery that a prospective buyer checked with the London-based Art Loss Register, which traced ownership back to Landsberg.

Landsberg settled in America in 1958, and died in 1994 without knowing what became of the painting.

"Obviously, the loss of artwork was a minor aspect of the horrendous crimes that occurred during the Nazi period, but it is one of the few crimes we can actually rectify at this late date," Bennigson's Los Angeles attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, said Friday. "I'm hopeful we can return 'Femme en blanc' to its rightful owner."

Alsdorf's attorneys contend the woman and her husband thought the purchase of the oil painting was legitimate and question the viability of Bennigson's claim to the work.

Bennigson, a former philosophy professor, is in his 40s and studying law at Boalt Hall, University of California, Berkeley, according to Schoenberg.

Bennigson contends he is Landsberg's sole heir.

This is a case with two victims: the original owner and the person who paid to buy it in good faith, Schoenberg said.

"Here the law is clear," Schoenberg said, "My client gets the painting."

Alsdorf should have checked whether the Picasso was purloined before making the purchase, Schoenberg said. Under American law, thieves cannot convey title to booty.

"Buyers of art works act at their own risk when they don't research what the provenance is," Schoenberg said. "The people who had the property stolen can get it back once the property is found."

The Art Loss Register has been a resource for Holocaust survivors whose art was stripped from them by the Nazis.

Bennigson got word about a year ago that his grandmother's painting was located by the Register.

The Register was brokering mediation to resolve "Femme en blanc" ownership earlier this month.

Bennigson hired Schoenberg on Dec. 10. Judge Yaffe granted a request by Schoenberg on Dec. 20 to order "Femme en blanc" be stored safely in California. The court was then told the work had already been shipped back to Alsdorf in Chicago.

Schoenberg said he believes the move was intended to "hide the painting" and dodge a state law that goes into effect Jan. 1. The law extends a statute of limitations on claims regarding art commandeered by the Third Reich. Bennigson's claim came well within the old statute, which allows families a grace period of three years from the time they learn the whereabouts of stolen art, Schoenberg said.

One of Alsdorf's attorneys, Richard Chapman, has publicly denied any shenanigans regarding the painting and maintains Alsdorf is interested in resolving the situation. Alsdorf feels she has done nothing wrong, according to Chapman.

On Jan. 10, Judge Yaffe will hear arguments regarding whether the painting should be brought back to Los Angeles for safekeeping until the courts determine its legal owner.