Guggenheim Museum faces lawsuit over Picasso painting

Written by Toyin Owoseje, CNN

One of Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period paintings is at the center of a lawsuit between a Jewish family and New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

The heirs of Karl Adler and Rosi Jacobi want the return of the artist’s 1904 masterpiece “Woman Ironing (La repasseuse),” which they claim the couple sold under duress when they tried to escape persecution by the Nazis in their native Germany in 1938.

The lawsuit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court on Friday, states that Adler acquired the artwork in 1916 from Munich gallery owner Heinrich Thannhauser, but sold it far below its value to Thannhauser’s son, Justin, in 1938 for about $1,552. The suit alleges that a desperate Adler took the significant loss because of his family’s circumstances.

“Adler would not have disposed of the painting at the time and price he did but for the Nazi persecution he and his family had been and would continue to be subjected to,” the complaint reads.

In the lawsuit, the relatives state that Adler was chairman of Europe’s leading leather manufacturer, but things changed when “the Nazi regime in Germany crushed their lives.”

In 1938, the family fled Germany and traveled through the Netherlands, France and Switzerland before settling permanently in Argentina, the suit states.

The Guggenheim Museum said it believes the suit is “without merit.” Credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

“The Adlers needed large amounts of cash just to get short-term visas during their exile in Europe. Unable to work, on the run, and not knowing what the future held for them, the Adlers had to quickly liquidate what they could. as much cash as possible,” the lawsuit states.

The heirs claim that Thannhauser “profited” from the misfortune of the German Jews. They also claim that “Thannhauser was well aware of Adler’s and his family’s plight and that Adler, absent Nazi persecution, would never have sold the painting when he did so at such a price,” according to the suit.

Rosi Adler died in 1946 in Buenos Aires at the age of 68, while her husband Karl died aged 85 in 1957 during a visit to his homeland.

“Woman Ironing” remained in Thannhauser’s art collection until his death in 1976. It, along with the rest of his art, was gifted to the Guggenheim in 1978.

Adler’s descendants, along with a number of non-profits and Jewish organizations named as plaintiffs in the class action, say in the complaint that the painting is “wrongfully in the possession” of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

The family is seeking the painting’s return or compensation equal to its current market value estimated at between $100 million and $200 million, according to the suit.

The Guggenheim Museum told CNN in a statement that it takes “issues of provenance and compensation claims extremely seriously” but believes this case is “without merit.”

“Karl Adler’s sale of the painting to Justin Thannhauser was a fair transaction between parties with a long-standing and ongoing relationship,” the museum said.

It added: “The extensive research conducted by Guggenheim since it was first contacted by an attorney representing these plaintiffs shows that Guggenheim is the rightful owner of the painting.”

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