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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

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Chicago Philanthropist Sues Law Student to Secure Title to Picasso Allegedly Stolen by Nazis


A Chicago philanthropist has sued to secure title to a Pablo Picasso artwork that a Boalt Hall law student claims was stolen from his grandmother by Nazis in the 1930s.
Marilynn Alsdorf brought suit Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. She contends that Thomas C. Bennigson, who sued Alsdorf and art dealer David Tunkl in Los Angeles Superior Court in 2002, became subject to the jurisdiction of the Illinois courts when he attended Alsdorf’s deposition in that suit in Chicago.
Bennigson is currently pursuing his Superior Court claims against Tunkl while awaiting arguments, not yet scheduled, before the California Supreme Court as to whether he can sue Alsdorf here. Div. Eight of this district’s Court of Appeal said he could not, concluding that Alsdorf did not subject herself to California’s jurisdiction by sending the painting to Tunkl’s gallery, where it was on display for eight months.
The dueling lawsuits concern Picasso’s 1922 work "Femme En Blanc," or Women in White.
Bennigson alleges that he is the lawful owner of the painting, which belonged to his grandmother, Carlota Landsberg, and which Bennigson says is now worth $10 million. The complaint alleges that Landsberg sent the painting to a Paris art dealer when she fled Berlin in 1933, but that the Nazis stole it around 1940.
Alsdorf and her late husband purchased the painting in New York in the late 1970s for more than $350,000. She sent it to Tunkl in Los Angeles in December 2001.
The art dealer who sold the painting signed an affidavit saying he had no knowledge it was linked to a Nazi looting. Alsdorf argues she has rights to the painting because before she bought it, the New York gallery purchased it legally from a French dealer.
In her complaint, Alsdorf said the ownership of the painting needs to be adjudicated because Benningson’s claim has kept potential buyers from coming forward. Bennigson has not been served with the suit, his attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg of the Los Angeles firm of Burris & Schoenberg, told the MetNews.
Bennigson said he did not know the painting existed, or that it had belonged to his grandmother, until the summer of 2002. The source of the information, he said, was The Art Loss Register, an international organization which helps to locate and recover Nazi-looted art for Holocaust victims.
The Art Loss Register allegedly told Tunkl around the same time that Bennigson was the rightful owner, but Tunkl allegedly didn’t tell Alsdorf until Dec. 13, 2002. Alsdorf ordered Tunkl to send the painting back to Chicago that same day, the plaintiff claims.
 Schoenberg said that Alsdorf deliberately moved the painting to sidestep a new California law extending the statute of limitations on cases concerning Nazi-looted art.
Schoenberg said yesterday that he will ask the court in Illinois to stay the action there, "as a matter of comity and deference," until the California Supreme Court rules.
That would be the correct course under Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976), the attorney said. That case established a multifactor test for federal courts to consider in determining whether to proceed with litigation whose subject matter is already pending before state courts.
Among those considerations is the relative progress of the two cases, a factor strongly favoring his client at this point, Schoenberg said.

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