Written by Toyin Owoseje, CNN
One of Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period paintings is at the center of a legal battle 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 “Bügelfrau (La repasseuse)”, which the couple had been forced to sell in 1938 while trying to escape Nazi persecution in their native Germany.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in Manhattan Supreme Court, says Adler acquired the artwork from Munich gallery owner Heinrich Thannhauser in 1916, but sold it to Thannhauser’s son Justin in 1938 for approximately $1,552, well below its value. The lawsuit alleges that a distraught eagle took upon himself the substantial loss due to his family’s circumstances.
“Adler would not have disposed of the painting at the time and at the price he did had he and his family not been and continued to be exposed to Nazi persecution,” the ad reads.
In the lawsuit, relatives allege that Adler was CEO of Europe’s leading leather manufacturer, but things changed when the “Nazi regime in Germany destroyed their lives.”
In 1938, the family fled Germany, traveling through the Netherlands, France and Switzerland before settling permanently in Argentina, the lawsuit says.
The Guggenheim Museum considers the suit “unfounded”. Credit: Brendan McDermid/Portal
“The Adlers needed large amounts of money just to get short-term visas during their exile in Europe. Disabled, on the run and not knowing what the future would hold for them, the Adlers had to liquidate everything they could too quickly and raise as much money as possible,” the lawsuit reads.
The heirs claim that Thannhauser “benefited” from the misfortune of the German Jews. They also allege that “Thannhauser was aware of the plight of Adler and his family, and that had it not been for Nazi persecution, Adler would never have sold the painting at such a price,” the lawsuit states.
Rosi Adler died in Buenos Aires in 1946 at the age of 68, her husband Karl died in 1957 at the age of 85 while visiting his homeland.
“Woman Ironing” remained in Thannhauser’s art collection until his death in 1976. It was donated to the Guggenheim in 1978 along with the rest of his artwork.
Adler’s descendants, along with a number of nonprofit and Jewish organizations named as plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, say in the complaint that the painting is “unlawfully owned” by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
The family is seeking the painting’s return or compensation equal to its current market value, which the lawsuit estimates at $100 million to $200 million.
The Guggenheim Museum told CNN in a statement that it “takes matters of provenance and claims of restitution extremely seriously” but believes the lawsuit is “unfounded.”
“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 the Guggenheim since it was first contacted by an attorney representing these plaintiffs indicates that the Guggenheim is the rightful owner of the painting.”