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January 24, 2023 10:11 am
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Family of Jewish Couple Who Owned Picasso Painting Before Fleeing Nazi Germany Sue Guggenheim Museum

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avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

A partial view of Pablo Picasso’s oil on canvas painting La Repasseuse (Woman Ironing). Photo: Matthias via Wikimedia Commons.

The heirs of a Jewish couple that fled Nazi Germany filed a lawsuit on Friday against the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City and are demanding restitution for a Pablo Picasso painting they claim their ancestor once owned that is now on display at the museum.

German Jewish businessman Karl Adler was chairman of the board of directors at Adler & Oppenheimer A.G., one of Europe’s leading leather manufacturers, and had led a “prosperous life” in Germany before World War II, according to the family’s Manhattan Supreme Court lawsuit. They claim that Adler and his wife Rosi purchased Picasso’s 1904 oil on canvas painting called Woman Ironing (La repasseuse) in 1916 from Heinrich Thannhauser, a Jewish gallery owner in Munich.

The family is seeking return of the painting or compensation for the value of the artwork, which they said is estimated to be between $100-200 million.

After the Nazis enacted the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws in 1935, Karl was forced to give up his position at the leathermaker, according to the lawsuit. He and his family fled Germany in June 1938 and though they hoped to travel directly to Argentina, entry to Argentina was difficult and costly. They “needed large amounts of cash just to obtain short-term visas” to stay in any European country.

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“Unable to work, on the run, and not knowing what the future would hold for them, the Adlers had to liquidate what they could to quickly raise as much cash as possible,” court papers said. “Thus, within a few short months of their escape from Germany, in October 1938, Adler was forced to sell the [Picasso] painting for well below its actual value. Adler would not have disposed of the painting at the time and price that he did, but for the Nazi persecution to which he and his family had been, and would continue to be, subjected.”

Karl’s heirs claim he then sold the Picasso to Thannhauser’s son in October 1938 for $1,552, “far below market value and less than one ninth of his asking price in 1932,” according to the lawsuit. Thannhauser eventually gifted his art collection, including Woman Ironing, to the Guggenheim upon his death and the museum has maintained possession of the artwork since 1978.

In April 1940, Karl and his family were finally granted permission to enter Argentina. By that time, the Nazis had looted all that remained of his German-held assets, including his bank accounts and real estate, and much of his assets in the Netherlands. Rosi died in 1946 in Buenos Aires at the age of 68; Karl died in 1957 at the age of 85 during a visit to Germany.

“Had Karl and Rosi not fled when they did, they would have undoubtedly suffered a much more tragic fate at the hands of the Nazis,” the heirs added in their lawsuit.

Karl’s family first learned in 2014 that their ancestor owned the artwork and contacted the Guggenheim about it in 2017, requesting information about the painting and the museum’s acquisition of it. The family demanded its repatriation in 2021, citing the 2016 Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act passed by Congress. However the museum refused to return the painting, which is “currently in the wrongful possession of the Guggenheim,” they contend.

“It is inequitable and against good conscience for [the Guggenheim] to continue to benefit from retention of the painting without payment,” according to the lawsuit.

The Guggenheim has dismissed the family’s claims.

“The Guggenheim takes provenance matters and restitution claims extremely seriously,” said Sara Fox, the museum’s communications director, according to the New York Post. “The Guggenheim has conducted expansive research and a detailed inquiry in response to this claim, engaged in dialogue with claimants’ counsel over the course of several years, and believes the claim to be without merit.”

“The action filed yesterday does not concern a painting that was stolen or seized by Nazi authorities,” the museum’s statement continued. “It is unclear on what basis claimants — more than 80 years after Adler’s sale of Woman Ironing — appear to have come to a view as to the fairness of the transaction that neither Karl Adler nor his immediate descendants appear to have ever expressed, even when the Guggenheim contacted the family directly to ask. The facts demonstrate that Karl Adler’s sale of the painting to Justin Thannhauser was a fair transaction between parties with a longstanding and continuing relationship.”

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