Non-profits and heirs of Jewish couple who escaped Nazis 85 years ago sue Guggenheim for Picasso painting

Guggenheim Museum Photo Source: Adobe Stock Image

The family of Holocaust survivors Karl and Rosi Adler, who anxiously fled Nazi Germany in 1938 sued the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for a Picasso painting worth $200 million. The heirs’ demand, unlike the precious abstract work of art, is crystal clear: return the painting to the family.

The lawsuit is based on the 2016 Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, which changed the statute of limitations for claims on recovering stolen art from the Nazi era. The Act allows heirs to sue museums, art galleries, and other organizations for the return of “Nazi-looted” art, which was acquired by methods of extortion or illegal sales.

The 1916 painting in question is a renowned Picasso work of art: Woman Ironing (La repasseuse). The oil painting was created by Picasso in 1904 and is described on the Guggenheim website by Nancy Spector as a “melancholy” piece done during the artist’s Blue Period.

“Perhaps no artist depicted the plight of the underclasses with greater poignancy than Picasso, who focused almost exclusively on the disenfranchised during his Blue Period (1901–04), known for its melancholy palette of predominantly blue tones and its gloomy themes,” noted the Guggenheim site.

The heirs of the Adlers decide to sue the Guggenheim now because they had not known that the original sale of the Picasso painting to an art dealer was done by alleged illegal means.

In the legal documents, the heirs claim that the sale of the precious Picasso painting, “which they mistakenly believed had been lawfully acquired by (art dealer) Thannhauser,” was not done legally. The family also said they have legal papers to prove their case.

Karl and Rosi Adler bought the Picasso painting in 1916 from the renowned gallery in Munich owned by Heinrich Thannhauser.

As their country embraced the Nazis and began deporting and murdering Jews, the Adlers planned to escape, and according to court documents, tried to sell the art for a great deal of money: $14,000. In today’s dollars, $14,000 is now worth about $300,000.

When the Adlers fled Germany in 1938, they sold it to an art dealer for a much lower price. To flee Nazi Germany, the couple needed great sums of cash, due to the exorbitant fees needed to pay for visas. In legal papers, the heirs say that their relatives had to leave with as much money as they could and had very few options to “quickly raise as much cash as possible.”

They decided to sell “Woman Ironing” to Justin Thannhauser, the son of the Munich gallery owner from whom they had purchased the art, for only $1,552, which is equal in value today to about $32,000.

Decades later, after Justin Thannhauser moved to New York and died, he gifted a valuable Picasso collection to the Guggenheim. That famous collection included Picasso’s “Woman Ironing.”

The heirs state, in the court documents, that “Thannhauser was buying comparable masterpieces from other German Jews who were fleeing from Germany and profiting from their misfortune. Thannhauser was well aware of the plight of Adler and his family, and that, absent Nazi persecution, Adler would never have sold the painting when he did at such a price.”

The court filing goes on to aver, “In 1933, the establishment of the Nazi regime in Germany shattered their lives,” describing how Nazi-era laws were deliberately enacted to push German Jews out of the professional and social status they occupied, including stripping them of personal assets, including valuable artwork.

The suit was filed in Manhattan Supreme Court by the Adler couple’s heirs, including multiple generations. The Adler heirs state that their relatives would have never parted with the Picasso painting, but that facing death as Nazis stripped them of their jobs and threatened their very lives, circumstances forced them to sell it in order to help fund their escape.

“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,” stated five of the heirs in the court document.

The Guggenheim foundation is refusing to return the valuable Picasso painting to the family.

The lawsuit states, “The painting is currently in the wrongful possession of the Guggenheim,” and the family demands the painting be returned to them or that the Guggenheim pays them between $100 to $200 million, based upon the work’s value.

The plaintiffs include about ten non-profits plus the Adlers’ heirs. One of the heirs, Thomas Bennigson, sued a Chicago art collector for the 1922 Picasso painting “Femme en blanc” which was owned by his mother and the child of the Adlers, Carlota. In 2009, Bennigson won his lawsuit and received a settlement of $6.5 million.

Diane Lilli
Diane Lilli
Diane Lilli is an award-winning Journalist, Editor, and Author with over 18 years of experience contributing to New Jersey news outlets, both in print and online. Notably, she played a pivotal role in launching the first daily digital newspaper, Jersey Tomato Press, in 2005. Her work has been featured in various newspapers, journals, magazines, and literary publications across the nation. Diane is the proud recipient of the Shirley Chisholm Journalism Award.
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