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From Nazi Germany to Berkeley: The Lady in White

By REGINA CHEN
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, JuneŻ24, 2003

Dressed in white, Sara Murphy stared downward, clasping the book between her
fingertips.

Her fate is still being decidedóeven though she passed away 28 years ago.

Murphy was a favorite model of Pablo Picasso, her likeness spread onto a
canvas more than 80 years ago.

Now embroiled in a $10 million battle for ownership, UC Berkeley law student
Tom Bennigson is suing to bring the painting back to its rightful owner.

He was the heir of Picasso's "Femme en Blanc," albeit unknowingly, until the
day he was contacted by The Art Loss Register, telling him the long-lost
woman in white belonged to his grandmother, Carlota Landsberg.

Landsberg had sought the painting four years after she fled Berlin in 1938
or 1939, fearing her Jewish heritage would make her a target of Nazi
persecution.

"Femme en Blanc" was left in the hands of a Paris art dealer for
safekeeping.

But the painting disappeared for nearly 40 years, until it resurfaced in a
New York art gallery in 1975 when Chicago philanthropist James Alsdorf
bought it.

But he too passed away, leaving the woman in white to his wife, Marilyn.

Now she and Bennigson are fighting for the painting. Each have claimed
rightful ownership and Bennigson is demanding the painting or $10 million.

Early last year, after Bennigson was told about the painting, he contacted
Alsdorf to settle the dispute out of court.

After a year of unsuccessful negotiations, Bennigson sued in December.

The lawsuit was just moved from Los Angeles to Chicago last week, by order
of a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.

"We're trying to get the painting and we don't want it moved all over the
place," says E. Randol Schoenberg, Bennigson's lawyer. "It's against the law
to transport stolen property."

Bennigson would like to see "Femme en Blanc" in a museum if he obtains the
painting. But his lawyer would not reveal whether Bennigson would sell or
donate it.

Although the painting is not one of Picasso's most valuable paintings, it is
one of his neo-classically styled paintings.

Murphy socialized in the same avant-garde circle with Picasso, F. Scott
Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s in France.

She was 39 years old when she posed for "Femme en Blanc". But she graced
many of Picasso's canvases.

The painting is only one of several thousands looted by Nazis during World
War II, now entangled in Holocaust restitution disputes.

About a dozen cases of Nazi-stolen artwork turn up yearly in museums, art
galleries and auction houses, said Claremont McKenna professor Jonathan
Petropoulos, an expert on Nazi-confiscated art.

The Nazi looting is one of the largest art thefts in history, rivaled only
by that of Napoleon, he said.

Nazis relocated the most valuable paintings to Hitler's museum, the Fuhrer
Museum in Linz, Austria, while some were put in the private galleries of
top-ranking Nazi generals.

By today's standards, the paintings are the most financially valuable assets
stolen by the Nazis, he said.

Tracking stolen paintings is a time- and money-intensive process. A painting
that seems to have been stolen could have been restituted, then later sold
by its owner, Petropoulos said.

Schoenberg is confident Bennigson will win the case because U.S. law favors
original owners. European law, however, favors bona fide owners, those who
purchase an item unaware of its stolen status.

Opponents of restitution argue that financial compensation should be a minor
priority to survivors, given the scale of the Holocaust.

"For some Holocaust victims, these concerns are unimportant compared to
other types of loss and suffering," Petropoulos says.

Each ownership battle is a blow damaging the art trade. Ownership history is
a major consideration in fine art appraisal.

A dubious history makes a sale difficult.

Art museums are also reluctant to loan paintings with questionable
histories, because of possible threats of seizures and financial
liabilities.

But restitution is not just limited to art. Yesterday the Supreme Court
ruled against a national law allowing Holocaust survivors to collect past
insurance claims.
 

Courtesy/E. Randol Schoenberg
"Femme en Blanc," a painting by Pablo Picasso, is the subject of a lawsuit
involving a Berkeley law student who claims the portrait is rightfully his.

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Berkeley, California
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