A Pablo Picasso painting worth up to $200 million today was sold for a song by a Jewish couple desperate to flee the Nazis in 1938 — and now the heirs want it back from the Solomon R. Guggenheim -foundation.
The 1904 piece called “Woman Ironing” (La repasseuse) was donated to the Guggenheim decades ago by the art dealer who paid a desperate Karl and Rosi Adler a paltry $1,552 for it when they escaped the Holocaust, according to a lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court on Friday.
“Adler would not have gotten rid of the painting at the time and price he did but for the Nazi persecution to which he and his family were, and would continue to be,” contend five of the couple’s contemporaries heirs to. , some of whom are great-grandchildren.
“The painting is currently in the wrongful possession of the Guggenheim” and the foundation has refused to give it up, the family claims in the legal documents, which are demanding either the painting or its estimated value of $100 million to $200 million.
Karl Adler, a married father of three, was chairman of the board of directors for Europe’s largest leather manufacturer when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power.
He bought “Woman Ironing” in 1916 from the then prestigious Munich gallery owner Heinrich Thannhauser.
“In 1933, the establishment of the Nazi regime in Germany shattered their lives,” the heirs argue in the court documents, recounting how Hitler quickly enacted and enforced laws designed to deprive Jews of their assets and their social and to ruin business life.
Adler initially investigated selling the Picasso to raise cash for a getaway, seeking $14,000, according to the lawsuit. That amount would be equal to about $300,000 today.
He didn’t sell, and by 1937 Jews in Germany, including Adler, were out of work by the Nazis. The family fled the country in June 1938, but instead of going directly to Argentina as planned, they were forced to hop in Europe while paying Nazi “flight taxes” and buying expensive short-term visas. In 1940 when they were finally able to come to South America.
“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 liquidate what they could to quickly raise as much cash as possible,” the court documents state.
This meant that the Picasso was finally sold in October 1938 to Heinrich Thannhauser’s son, Justin, for $1,552 – about $32,000 in today’s dollars.
“Thannhauser bought comparable masterpieces from other German Jews who had fled Germany and profited from their misfortune. Thannhauser was well aware of the plight of Adler and his family, and that Adler, without Nazi persecution, would never have sold the painting at such a price,” the heirs claim in the legal filing.
“Had Karl and Rosi not fled when they did, they undoubtedly would have suffered a far more tragic fate at the hands of the Nazis,” the lawsuit states.
Rosi Adler died in Buenos Aires in 1946 at the age of 68, while an 85-year-old Karl died in 1957 during a visit to his homeland. Neither Karl nor his children realized they could make a claim for the painting “which they mistakenly believed had been legally acquired by Thannhauser,” the heirs argued.
The great-grandchildren, including California attorney Thomas Bennigson, and about 10 nonprofits named in the will of one of Adler’s children are part of the lawsuit, which cites the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016 as grounds for the artwork’s return .
This is not the first time Bennigson has pursued his family’s stolen artwork. In 2009, he won a $6.5 million settlement from a Chicago collector that ended with Picasso’s 1922 painting “Femme en blanc” (Woman in White), which once belonged to his mother, Carlota – Karl and Rosi ‘s daughter – belonged.
Thannhauser later emigrated to New York and eventually donated his art collection, including “Woman Ironing,” to the Guggenheim after his death in 1976.
The Adler family first contacted the Guggenheim in 2017 about “Woman Ironing,” but the institution refused to return the “unique and irreplaceable” painting, they argue.
“It is unfair and against good conscience for [the Guggenheim] to continue to profit from the preservation of the painting without payment,” according to the lawsuit.
The Guggenheim dismissed the claim as “without merit” and said it takes restitution matters “extremely seriously”. The museum, which said it had been discussing the allegations with the heirs’ lawyers for several years, said it had done “extensive research” on the painting and had contacted Karl Adler’s son, Eric, in the 1970s to determine the provenance. to determine. Eric Adler didn’t raise any red flags at the time, the foundation noted.
“The action filed yesterday does not relate to a painting that was stolen or confiscated by Nazi authorities,” the museum’s statement continued. “Rather, the painting in question was sold in late 1938 or early 1939 by Karl Adler, a German Jew with extensive international business interests, to Justin Thannhauser, a prominent Jewish art dealer.”
Additional reporting by Isabel Vincent