Whose Picasso is it?
Looted by Nazis, a 1922 masterwork ignites a dispute between a Chicago arts
patron and a Holocaust survivor's heir
By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
January 19, 2003
When Chicago philanthropists James and Marilynn Alsdorf purchased Picasso's
"Femme en blanc" ("Woman in White") from a New York art dealer in 1975,
their receipt carried only three words regarding the painting's previous
ownership: "Private Collection, Paris."
At the time, many art collectors and dealers did not bother to inquire
whether a painting might have been looted by the Nazis from Holocaust
victims, then resold after World War II on the international marketplace.
Today, few legitimate dealers, collectors or curators would touch a painting
utterly lacking in documentation on its WWII-era provenance, for fear that a
Holocaust survivor or an heir might emerge to prove that the art work had
been stolen by the Germans. And a phrase as cryptic as "Private Collection,
Paris" would be considered so vague as to raise more questions than it
Art commerce has changed dramatically in the 28 years that Marilynn Alsdorf
(whose husband died in 1990) has owned "Femme en blanc," which is why she
finds herself at the center of a legal, moral and public debate over art
works looted during the Holocaust.
Last month, Thomas C. Bennigson, heir of the Holocaust survivor who lost
control of the painting during World War II, sued Alsdorf for $10 million,
after negotiations between the parties broke down. The case has sparked
claims and counterclaims regarding the painting's history, the nature of
property law and the moral obligation of art collectors and dealers. And it
has pitted Alsdorf against one of the most prominent art recovery
organizations in the world, the London-based Art Loss Register, which first
reported that the Picasso had been looted.
Last April, when the Art Loss Register informed Alsdorf that her Picasso was
once Nazi loot, she became the latest in a long line of collectors facing
circumstances that buyers today try hard to avoid.
"People are much more aware today that they need to know the history of an
art work before they buy it," said Martha Wolff, a curator of painting at
the Art Institute of Chicago.
"Yet even today you'd be surprised at how many dealers still do not provide
very much information. We [curators] end up having to do a lot of research
"Not every dealer is equally careful."
Many major museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, inform the
public via Web sites about artworks with questionable or unknown provenance,
giving anyone with a claim easy access to information about a potentially
But private collectors and art dealers often have taken a different tack.
Many, like Alsdorf, walk away from settlement negotiations with claimants,
seeking instead to defend their interests and their property in court.
Because Alsdorf's painting dates from Picasso's "classic" period (the years
following World War I), its value to collectors and dealers is considerable.
"It's from a very highly sought after period of Picasso's career, so a fine
picture of that period probably would be worth in the $10 to $15 million
range today," said James Yood, lecturer and assistant chairperson in
Northwestern University's department of art theory and practice.
"This painting was done at a time when Picasso returned to a kind of
representational art. It's almost Picasso without tears. It is Picasso tied
to the grand tradition. It does not engage in the Cubist exercises he did in
other periods of his career.
"In the years after WWI, many artists returned to painting figures, with
women as subject matter. It was more accessible art, a sort of calming
gesture after the intense rhetoric of WWI."
But the high value of Picasso's "Femme en blanc" also has brought to this
case immense media coverage, a factor in the brinkmanship between opposing
Last month, when Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg filed suit on
behalf of Holocaust heir Thomas C. Bennigson against Alsdorf and her
associates, a cat-and-mouse game that had been played in private for nearly
a year suddenly was laid bare for all the world to see.
"We've never really been very excited -- and Mrs. Alsdorf is not at all
happy -- about trying the case in the press," said her attorney, Richard
Chapman. "To the extent that she may be portrayed by some as a villain is
very troubling to her."
Alsdorf declined to comment for this article.
Bennigson, the heir who sued Alsdorf once negotiations broke down in
mid-December, also is disturbed by the unfolding drama.
"I don't know anything about Mrs. Alsdorf, but after the way her lawyers
have been handling this, I can't say I love her," said Bennigson, a
44-year-old law student at the University of California at Berkeley.
"Their reaction seems to be, `Tough, what are you going to do about it?'
"If I were in Mrs. Alsdorf's position and found out that I had something
that was stolen, I believe I'd say, `Let's work out something,' not dig in
In some instances, when a Holocaust survivor or heir has proven to a current
owner that an artwork was stolen, the two parties have agreed to sell the
work and split the proceeds equally.
But the parties battling over Picasso's "Femme en blanc" (also known as
"Femme assise") appear well past the point of attaining such an amicable
settlement. And though both sides say that an out-of-court settlement
remains a possibility, the documents filed thus far in Los Angeles County
Superior Court point to a don't-give-an-inch brawl.
Specifically, Schoenberg -- Bennigson's attorney -- accuses Alsdorf of
yanking the painting back to Chicago last month from California, where it
had been in the control of a Los Angeles gallery for more than a year.
Alsdorf did so, Schoenberg alleges, to elude a law that went into effect
Jan. 1 in California extending the statute of limitations on cases involving
Nazi-looted art. Schoenberg obtained a temporary restraining order blocking
the move of the painting to Chicago, though it was too late; the Picasso
already was back in Alsdorf's possession.
Alsdorf denies in court documents that she was trying to avert California
law in favor of a safer legal haven in Illinois, which does not have a law
comparable to California's (nor does any other state). More important, the
legal briefs filed on Alsdorf's behalf challenge every assertion made by
Bennigson and the Art Loss Register, including the documentation that the
painting was looted by the Nazis and that Bennigson is heir to the original
With the two sides still fighting over jurisdiction -- whether the trial
should proceed in California or Illinois -- it could be months before they
get down to the substantive issues of the case.
Lost amid the legal maneuvers and posturing in the press, however, are the
flesh-and-blood stories of the people who fled Nazi-era Germany to save
their lives and the widely admired Chicago art philanthropists who ended up
owning one of the Holocaust victims' artworks.
A hostile environment
Like many Jews in pre-WWII Berlin, Robert and Carlota Landsberg flourished
in Germany yet felt as if they were outsiders in a potentially hostile
place, said their grandson, Bennigson.
"Some of their apprehensions even predate the Nazis," recalled Bennigson.
"There was the whole Jewish experience in Europe, of Jews wanting to
assimilate but of not feeling fully a part of that society."
A widow since 1932, Carlota Landsberg and her daughter, Edith, stayed in
Berlin and endured the horrors of Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938, when
rampaging Nazis and their sympathizers burned synagogues, Jewish-owned
businesses and homes in Germany and Austria.
"Immediately after that, people were telling them they better get out, for
their own safety," added Bennigson, who often heard the story of the
family's escape from Hitler's rapidly expanding empire.
Before Landsberg and her daughter fled, she sent the Picasso -- purchased in
1926 or '27 -- for safekeeping to a noted French art dealer in Paris, Justin
K. Thannhauser, according to court documents and historical records. With
the work vouchsafed in a city that the Nazis had not yet invaded, Landsberg
and her daughter began an often frightening journey around the continent.
"They fled across Europe, to Switzerland, France, Spain and other places,
and I was told there were many close calls," Bennigson said.
"At one point, they were in unoccupied France, and my mother [Landsberg's
daughter, Edith] was detained on suspicion of being a German national. She
had left her curtain open during a curfew, and the authorities suspected
that she might be an agent, and that her leaving the curtain open might have
been a kind of signal to the enemy.
"So, they were being held and feared that they wouldn't be released or get
out before the Nazis got there.
"Finally they were let go and ended up in Argentina for a year, because
that's where my grandmother's parents were."
The effects of the flight left emotional scars on Bennigson's mother and
grandmother, he said, though each showed it differently.
"My grandmother was a fearful person. She kept that experience around with
her," Bennigson said, "not in the sense of being shy and withdrawn -- she
was actually rather outgoing -- but it was very hard for her to trust
people. She was a very fearful person.
"My mother was a very different person than my grandmother: timid, shy, but
Carlota Landsberg and her daughter settled in New York in 1940 or '41. Edith
Landsberg married Rudolph Bennigson, a Holocaust survivor who had lost his
immediate family in the concentration camps. The two had one child, Thomas
Shortly after the end of WWII, Carlota Landsberg began pursuing the Picasso
painting, records show. Despite decades-long correspondence with the
post-war governments of France and Germany and with a variety of European
art dealers, Landsberg was unable to locate the Picasso.
In 1969, the restitution office of the German government determined that
Landsberg had owned the Picasso, had stored it with Thannhauser but had
never found it, according to correspondence from Landsberg's restitution
file. Thus Landsberg was given 100,000 Deutschmarks in restitution (about
$27,300), with the stipulation that if she ever retrieved the painting, she
would be required to report it to the German restitution office and pay back
the restitution amount.
Landsberg died in 1994 in New York without ever finding the painting.
Began collecting in 1950s
Chicagoans James and Marilynn Alsdorf made their fortune in business and
investments and began collecting art in the 1950s, their international
travels allowing them to view and acquire objects out of the reach of the
ordinary art lover.
Everything about their pursuits, in fact, was extraordinary. The Alsdorfs
attained a degree of knowledge in Southeast Asian art, in particular, that
was admired even by experts in the field.
"When I met them, their interest was already quite deep," scholar
Pratapaditya Pal, one of the world's leading specialists in Indian,
Himalayan and Southeast Asian art, told the Tribune in 1997.
Furthermore, the Alsdorfs developed a rich sense of civic pride, often
donating works to Chicago art institutions. Even after James Alsdorf's
death, in 1990, Marilynn Alsdorf remained fervently committed to art in
Chicago. In 1997, she gave 400 objects of Indian and Southeast Asian art to
the Art Institute of Chicago. That gift raised the stature of the
institute's holdings of such items, which suddenly ranked alongside those of
the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in
New York City.
"In both its size and quality, [the Alsdorf gift] has few precedents in the
history of this institution," said museum director James N. Wood when the
gift was made.
Four years earlier, Marilynn Alsdorf had given the museum a collection of 81
pieces of Renaissance jewelry and endowed a gallery to display them.
At the Art Institute of Chicago, she is admired for the breadth of her
generosity and the depth of her knowledge.
"Mrs. Alsdorf is the head of our committee on European painting, and she's a
wonderful spokesman," said Gloria Groom, a curator in the Art Institute's
department of European painting.
"She understands art. She kind of epitomizes the grand dame, in terms of
elegance and always having something interesting to say.
"And she has presence. When she walks into a room, heads turn."
Supporters of restitution
Added Betty Seid, a research associate in the Art Institute's department of
Asian art, "Mrs. Alsdorf has a very keen eye as a connoisseur. I think that
she knows what she's doing."
Both Marilynn and James Alsdorf considered themselves supporters of early
efforts in the field of art restitution.
"My late husband, James Alsdorf, was a board member of the International
Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), which was created in 1969 to educate the
public about problems and issues in the art world," Alsdorf said in a court
"IFAR helped expand the Art Loss Register's data base of lost artworks. The
Alsdorf Foundation is currently a financial supporter of IFAR."
Adds Chapman, Alsdorf's attorney, "In essence, you're talking about somebody
who's very close to the issue" of art recovery and restitution.
Closer, though, than Alsdorf may have imagined. After she sent her Picasso
to the David Tunkl Fine Art Gallery, in Los Angeles, in September of 2001,
Tunkl told her that he had a prospective buyer in France, Alsdorf said in
But once Tunkl sent the work to Europe, the Parisian art dealer who was
interested in acquiring it did what many high-end art customers do these
days: He contacted the Art Loss Register to check on the painting's WWII-era
Looted by the Nazis
The Art Loss Register, which has identified 21 paintings looted during WWII
(including works by Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro), quickly determined
that in 1947 the Picasso had been listed in an extensive text detailing Nazi
plundered art, the "Repertoire des Biens Spolies En France Durant La Guerre
1939-1945." That reference work was among the first to detail artworks
looted by the Nazis, and it listed the Picasso as having been taken from
In April 2002, the Art Loss Register informed Alsdorf of this discovery, and
Alsdorf immediately began discussions to resolve the matter.
"This letter shall authorize you to negotiate directly with my attorney
Stephen Bernard as he has my complete and absolute authority to negotiate a
resolution of your claim of interests," wrote Alsdorf to the Art Loss
Register on April 30, 2002.
But as the Art Loss Register continued its investigation -- with inquiries
in France, Germany and Switzerland -- it learned that Thannhauser did not
own the painting but had been holding it for Carlota Landsberg.
The documentation was vast, including a photo of the painting from
Thannhauser's estate with the words "Stolen by the Germans" and "Carlota
Landsberg" written on the reverse side; a 1927 book on Picasso indicating
the painting was owned by Robert Landsberg; documents from France's
Ministres des Affaires Etrangeres specifying that the painting was on
deposit with Thannhauser but "the property of Mme de Landzberg" and that
many other paintings from Thannhauser's apartment had been looted by the
Nazis' Mobel-Aktion forces; and documents from a 1969 finding by the German
restitution office that the painting had been looted by the Nazis and that
Landsberg, not Thannhauser, was owed restitution, which she received.
In addition, the Art Loss Register learned that the painting was exported
from France to New York in 1975, the same year the Alsdorfs acquired it, by
the Renou & Poyet gallery in Paris. During WWII, that gallery was known as
Renou & Colle, and a report from the United States' Office of Strategic
Services on that Paris gallery called it a "firm of art dealers who handled
looted art, notably from the Paul Rosenberg Collection."
Letter confirmed ownership
Last summer, when the Art Loss Register located Landsberg's heir, Bennigson,
he examined his grandmother's papers and discovered a letter to Carlota
Landsberg from Thannhauser confirming everything the Art Loss Register had
"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, 35
[Rue] Mirosmenil," Thannhauser wrote to Landsberg in 1958.
"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
stolen. . . . [And] during the four-day long violent German national
socialist plundering everything was taken out of the four-story house during
the night and placed in trucks. . . .
"As you know, I have often tried to find a trace of this oil Painting, as
well as all of the other property that disappeared at the same time, but
until now without success."
It was not until last month that Alsdorf learned the claimant was not
Thannhauser's estate but Landsberg's heir, and at that point she broke off
"When I learned that the Art Loss Register had changed its position about
the history of the painting, after it had made clear representations
regarding its authority to resolve another claimant's claim, I felt very
uncomfortable about the reliability of the conclusions that the Art Loss
Register had reached about the painting," said Alsdorf in her court
Added Chapman, her attorney, "When this issue came up, I believe Mrs.
Alsdorf felt extremely uncomfortable with the fact that there were
negotiations ongoing with a party whose standing and whose representation
was at best questionable," a reference to the Art Loss Register.
"I'm not suggesting that they were lying or [operating] in bad faith, I'm
only suggesting that, not having the benefit of hindsight, what she
[Alsdorf] was hearing was somebody who was unclear as to who they were
Courts need to decide
Furthermore, Alsdorf and Chapman believe that documentation showing the
history of the painting during WWII needs to be tested in court and that the
German government's finding that the painting had been looted from Landsberg
can be successfully challenged.
"I think we have a duty to ask the hard questions," Chapman said. "In 1969,
the job of figuring out what happened in 1939 is not a whole lot easier than
the job that a court has now. Even 30 years later, it presents the same
issues and the same questions of proof.
"And the other issue that I think we ought to be considering is that there
may be a different standard of proof that was reflected at that time and in
that place [Germany in 1969] than the standard of proof that's going to be
But if Alsdorf and her representatives are skeptical of the evidence that
Bennigson and the Art Loss Register have produced, what information do they
have about the painting's provenance during WWII?
"What we know about the painting is when she acquired it in '75 from the
dealer," said Chapman, referring to dealer Stephen Hahn, whose gallery was
at 960 Madison Ave. in New York when the Alsdorfs purchased the Picasso from
"More than that I can't say. I just don't know," Chapman said. "So, I can't
tell you, for example, did the painting change hands four times prior to Mr.
Hahn's acquisition? I don't know that."
Neither, apparently, does Hahn.
"When I saw that picture almost 30 years ago, nobody asked anything about
those things," said Hahn, who is retired and lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"Mrs. Alsdorf called me [recently], and I gave her all the information I had
and where I bought it. That's all I know."
But the era in which art dealers and owners cite ignorance of a painting's
provenance as a defense against owning looted art may be ending, judging by
the spate of civil lawsuits that have been filed in recent years in Chicago,
Los Angeles, New York, Boston, London, Prague and beyond.
And though Alsdorf attorney Chapman disputes the contention of the current
lawsuit that "a thief cannot convey good title," asserting that in some
states and some nations good title can be obtained if a purchase is made in
good faith, he believes that this case is just the tip of the iceberg when
it comes to looted art.
"We're absolutely in favor of debate and discussion of hard issues such as
these, and public debate dealing with situations where there is a general
question posed, and an attempt to bring resolution out of what seems
unresolvable," Chapman said.
"The ownership of this particular painting is neither the beginning nor the
end of that resolution process."
On that, at least, all parties can agree.
'Femme en blanc': A trail leads from France to Chicago
Unlike many paintings claimed to have been looted by the Nazis during World
War II, Pablo Picasso's "Femme en blanc" has a well-documented trail.
1922 Picasso paints "Femme en blanc" (also known as "Femme assise").
1926 or '27 Robert and Carlota Landsberg, Jews living in Berlin, purchase
1932 Robert Landsberg dies.
1938 or '39 Carlota Landsberg sends painting to the noted Parisian art
dealer Justin Thannhauser for safekeeping, then flees Berlin.
Aug. 10, 1939 Thannhauser leaves Paris, returning after the war.
1942 Nazis loot Thannhauser's Paris home of all its art, including the
1947 Painting is listed in a reference work detailing looted art works.
1958 Thannhauser writes to Carlota Landsberg, stating that painting was
looted by Nazis.
1969 German government determines that Nazis looted painting from
Thannhauser's home and that painting had belonged to the Landsbergs..
1975 James and Marilynn Alsdorf purchase painting from Stephen Hahn Gallery,
New York, for $357,000
1990 James Alsdorf dies.
1994 Carlota Landsberg dies.
Sept. 20, 2001-Oct. 28, 2001 Alsdorf displays painting at David Tunkl Fine
Art Gallery, Los Angeles.
Dec. 2001 Art Loss Register is asked by French art dealer, who is
considering acquiring painting, to check its World War II provenance. Art
Loss Register determines painting was looted.
Early 2002 Los Angeles gallery owner Tunkl sends painting to Europe, at
Alsdorf's request, for possible sale.
April 2002 Marilynn Alsdorf is informed by the Art Loss Register that
painting was looted by Nazis; she commences negotiations on possible
Summer 2002 Art Loss Register determines painting belonged to the Landsberg
family and locates its heir, Thomas C. Bennigson, of Oakland, Calif.
Dec. 13, 2002 Alsdorf meets with Tunkl in Chicago and asks for return of
Dec. 18, 2002 Alsdorf ends negotiations on settlement. Bennigson files suit
against Alsdorf and Tunkl in Los Angeles.
Jan. 9, 2003 Judge David P. Yaffe continues until February arguments
concerning jurisdiction of dispute.
Source: Court documents
Copyright (c) 2003, Chicago Tribune
Evolution of a master's work
Pieces of different Picasso styles lead up to 'Woman in White'
Alan G. Artner, Tribune art critic
January 19, 2003
Pablo Picasso, the supreme avatar of Modernism, died 30 years ago this
April, and even though our Postmodern period plays by a more relaxed set of
rules, in one important way Picasso remains daunting: During 80 years of
activity, a fierce restlessness kept him from the kind of ease represented
by what we call a signature style.
Picasso had not one style but many and worked in more than one concurrently.
That, we tell ourselves, is the way it's supposed to be with great artists.
But it has been more common for them to arrive at a mature style and stick
with it -- to advantage especially in the marketplace, which thrives on an
artist's most "typical" examples.
Picasso, on the other hand, was ever-changing, and today we trace how one of
his styles led to a particularly fine example that long has been in Chicago
and recently became the subject of a legal dispute.
"Femme en blanc" ("Woman in White") is a picture of a monumentally
proportioned female seated holding a book. Picasso painted it in 1922. Its
financial value is estimated at $10 million. We show something of where the
artist came from to get to the painting and how what he achieved in it
influenced for a time what he did thereafter. That constitutes the
painting's actual value.
Following World War I, artists in France recoiled from the most avant-garde
tendencies; poet Jean Cocteau termed it a "call to order." Picasso was on
the way as early as 1914 when he sought escape from the radical geometrics
of Cubism that he and Georges Braque had originated. But it took much longer
for the way to become distinct.
Picasso started doing theater designs in 1916. The first, for the ballet
"Parade," took him to Italy, where direct experience of Roman antiquity
seems to have encouraged a personal form of classicism. This fit in
perfectly with the general desire for an art of serenity and balance.
Picasso married dancer Olga Koklova in 1918 and assumed a new way of life
that also represented stability. Even so, he continued to explore a form of
Cubism as he worked toward a classicism of massive figures in various
groupings of peasants, dancers and outdoor bathers.
For clarity, we have isolated some of his seated females to indicate the
development both before and after the "Woman in White"; in reality, Picasso
treated many different subjects in different styles. The idea, however, is
to show how "Woman" is of a subtlety and refinement that was not immediately
arrived at. The dispute over the painting is, of course, about something
else, but if the picture were any less artistically, it might have been
pursued differently, for this is a masterpiece of Picasso's classical
"SEATED WOMAN HOLDING A BOOK" 1916, drawing
Picasso never created an abstract picture but came close in the Cubism that
faceted objects and fragmented forms in 1911. He soon shrunk back from that,
and in this drawing five years later explores a more decorative form of
Cubism, in which the woman, her chair and book are reduced to essential
lines and flattened like a collage of cut blank papers that nonetheless
maintains clear ties to the world of appearance.
"ITALIAN WOMAN" 1919, oil
In 1917 Picasso went to Rome for eight weeks. There he met his future wife,
and took side trips to Naples and Pompeii. The ancient wall decorations at
Pompeii impressed him, and he immediately wrote of creating his own
"Pompeiian fantasies." Later paintings show him inflating figures inspired
by the frescoes like balloons. That has begun to happen -- notice the hands
-- in this painting of an Italian woman created long after the trip, in
"WOMAN READING (BUST)" 1920, oil
The motif of a woman reading returns, monumentalized by Picasso's treatment
of the figure's head and hands. Her coiffure also begins to resemble that of
classical sculptures, and unlike the previous examples of seated females,
the figure now wears a robe that looks back to earlier centuries. The serene
atmosphere characteristic of antique art is furthered by the woman's
absorption in her book.
"WOMAN IN AN ARMCHAIR" 1921-22, oil
The head and dress of this figure again seem to have come directly from
classical sculpture. However, Picasso's monumentalizing tendency has
disappeared, and the figure has the leanness of an ancient goddess -- or the
New Woman of the 1920s. Nothing in the style of the painting is forced. Even
as it refers to earlier art, it convincingly brings classicism to an
armchair in Right Bank Paris.
"BUST OF A WOMAN IN A SHIRT" 1922, oil
The gravity of "Woman in White" is recaptured through just the head and
shoulders of the figure. The monumentality of the earlier torso is gone;
only a heavy-liddedness persists. The inward-looking gaze is freed from any
external prop. As with the Cubist "Seated Woman Holding a Book," this, too,
is a special kind of distillation.
"WOMAN IN AN ARMCHAIR" 1922-23, oil
Here is Picasso's most relaxed treatment of the theme. The fullness of the
figure again is evident in the face, and she is once more in classical
dress. An armchair wraps around her. One arm is draped in the folds of a
robe. The atmosphere has, however, lightened. Would this degree of apparent
naturalness have been possible without "Woman in White"?
Copyright (c) 2003, Chicago Tribune