Guggenheim sued over ownership of a Picasso painting


Sam Valadi I Flickr

Misheel Bayasgalan, Copy Editor

The family of Karl Adler sued the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation over the ownership of Pablo Picasso’s “Woman Ironing,” sold during Nazi Germany’s rule.

Adler, a German Jewish man, bought the painting in question from Heinrich Thannhauser, a gallery owner in Munich in 1916.

As the Nazi party came to power in 1933, the Alder family lost their leather manufacturing company and other financial assets. The family fled Germany in June of 1938 and lived in different European countries. They settled in the Netherlands, France and Switzerland while waiting for their permanent visas to flee to Argentina.

To fund their short-term visas in various countries, the Adler family sold back the painting to Thannhauser’s son, Justin, who was living in Paris, France for $1,552. Adjusting for today’s inflation that would be equivalent to around $32,000.

The plaintiff’s claim rests on the painting’s sale price, which was much lower than its appraised value of $14,000 six years earlier when Adler was exploring a possible sale in 1932. This is the basis of the family’s argument; the painting was sold under coercion and the sale would not have taken place if the Adler family was not fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe.

“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 plaintiff stated in the court complaint.

Additionally, the suit brings up the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws and the “flight tax” which would’ve stripped Adler of all his belongings upon leaving Nazi Germany, according to The Times of Israel.

The painting came to be in the Guggenheim Foundation’s possession after Thannhauser’s death in 1976, who gifted his art collection to the museum. “Woman Ironing” has since been on display at the Guggenheim since it arrived in 1978.

Adler’s heirs learned of the painting in 2014. They first contacted the Guggenheim in 2017 and later in June 2021. They demanded the painting’s return under the 2016 Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, according to The Times of Israel.

The Guggenheim stated it takes restitution claims seriously. The museum looked deeper into their inquiry on the painting and engaged in good-faith dialogue with the claimants’ counsel to find a resolution for the dispute but found “the claim to be without merit.”

Additionally, the museum states it contacted Adler’s son Eric and other family members in the 1970s before taking ownership of the painting, but “none expressed concern or interest in the painting’s ownership.”

In a statement to The New York Times, Nicholas M. O’Donnell, a lawyer who specializes in art-related cases, shed some light on the Adler family’s situation, “it might prove important that Adler sold the painting after fleeing Germany. History and law have recognized that a Jewish person did not have the power to make a fair deal within territory controlled by the Nazis.”

He continued, “it was less clear how much duress the court would assign to a sale executed from outside that territory,” as the sale was done in Paris, France.

O’Donnell also points out Thannhauser was a controversial figure and “happened to be in the right place at the right time to take a lot off the hands of Jews desperately fleeing Europe. Those who defend him say, ‘He was the one who helped them get something.’ Those who criticize him say, ‘It’s funny how he always seemed to end up with this depressed-value art.’”

According to the lawsuit, the painting is currently worth between $100 million and $200 million and the plaintiffs said they would consider the financial sum of the painting’s value in place of the artwork itself.