Published: January 7, 2003
One Picasso, Two Owners:
By W.A. Demers
LOS ANGELES – It has been nearly 60 years since the Nazis were soundly defeated, but battles over ownership of the artwork they looted during their rampage across the European continent continue to rage on.
In the most recent skirmish, a University of California law student, claiming to be the sole heir of his grandmother, a Jewish woman who fled Germany during World War II, is seeking to regain a Pablo Picasso painting allegedly looted by the Nazis or be paid $10 million by the art collector who owns it. As in real wars, both sides claim victims. “It’s Solomonic,” said E. Randol Schoenberg, the California attorney representing Thomas Bennigson, the law student. “Only one person gets to keep it.”
For the antiques and fine art market, such legal battles may ultimately have a chilling effect as they illustrate that with war- or government-sanctioned looting, there are in fact two victims. One is the original victim from whom such artwork was originally stolen; the other, the current owner, who in an all-or-nothing settlement receives no compensation from his or her investment made prior to the widespread knowledge of and use of looted-art data bases.
In this case, the 1922 Picasso painting, known as “Femme en blanc,” was purchased in 1975 from a New York City gallery by the husband of Chicago art collector Marilyn Alsdorf for $357,000. Alsdorf, through her attorneys, said she was unaware that the painting had been looted by the Nazis. Bennigson’s lawyers contend that the painting was confiscated by the Nazis in 1940 from a Paris art dealer who had been entrusted with the piece by the grandmother who had fled Germany.
For Nazi-looted artwork, one of the first major considerations is determining who exactly the actual original owner might have been, a task complicated by the passage of time and the “fog of war.” The problem, according to scholar Lynn H. Nichols, author of The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (Knopf, 1994), is that while the Allies’ “monuments officer” spent six years locating and sorting the pillaged treasures in an attempt to restore them to museums and surviving owners, there remained much that had either been destroyed or has never been found. Another factor is how far out in time claims may be made.
In the Picasso case, Bennigson in a court declaration said that he was first notified of the painting’s existence in 2002 by the Art Loss Register in London, a private international database of lost and stolen art, antiques and collectibles. In his declaration, Bennigson stated, “I located a letter in German dated 1958, from Mr Thannhauser [the Paris art dealer] to my grandmother which states: ‘Dear Mrs Landsberg, As I remember very clearly, and as I 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. At this time, as we were forced to leave our home in Paris in 1939, your painting 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.'”
Although contacted for comment, Alsdorf’s attorney did not return a call.
Stephen Hahn, a retired New York City gallery owner living in California said he does recall selling the Alsdorfs the Picasso painting in 1975. As for how Hahn came by the work, “I bought the painting from a reliable gallery in Paris, which had obtained it from a private collection. I was not told the name,” he said.
At the time Hahn made the sale, exhaustive databases on Nazi-looted art were not widely available. In fact, Art Loss Register was not founded until 1991.
The predecessor organization, the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), began collecting records on stolen art in the mid-1970s, and entered into an agreement with ALR’s founders at the end of the 1980s to license the information that would form the basis of the registry’s current computerized database, according to Anna J. Kisluk. Nevertheless, Kisluk pointed out, “A photo and description of the painting was included in a multivolume French publication that was distributed by the French authorities after the war.”
While admitting that this publication is not widely available and quite out of date, Kisluk said that it clearly proved the trail from Carlotta Landsberg to the Paris art dealer J.K. Thannhauser. From there, ALR began to search for Landsberg and subsequently her heir, Bennigson.
The other issue affecting artwork, antiques and collectibles is the window of time in which claims of ownership can be made. A new state law in California, which took effect on January 1, retroactively extends the statute of limitations for all claims against museums and galleries over Nazi-looted artworks to December 31, 2010. According to Schoenberg, the previous California statute was set at three years after discovery. In New York, it is three years from the date a claim is made.
On January 10, Judge David P. Yaffe of the California Superior Court will rule on whether the painting, currently in Chicago under a temporary restraining order, will be returned to California to Bennigson.
However the case is decided, publicity may spur both buyers and sellers of fine art to exercise more “due diligence” in vetting the provenance of artworks. “It’s not just a legal issue,” said ALR’s Kisluk, “there’s a moral component as well.” Sixty years removed from the horrific events of World War II and the Holocaust as these issues about Europe’s looted treasures continue to arise, sources of information such as the ALR database will become critical to ensuring that past victims are made whole and that unwary private collectors, dealers or museums do not become victims themselves.
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