The Guggenheim Museum is accused of wrongfully possessing a Picasso painting valued at up to $200 million
The Guggenheim Museum is accused of wrongfully possessing a Picasso painting valued at up to $200 million | Tomas Eidsvold/Unsplash

Lawsuit Demands Guggenheim Museum Return $200 Million Picasso Painting to Jewish Family that Fled Nazi Persecution

A new lawsuit filed against the Guggenheim Museum demands the Upper East Side institution return a Pablo Picasso painting worth up to $200 million to the family of Jewish family who originally owned the painting and were forced to sell it at a “fire sale” price while feeling Nazi’s in the years prior to the start of the Holocaust.

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Picasso’s ‘Woman Ironing’ was created in 1904 during the artist’s ‘Blue Period’ and has been hanging in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum at the corner of East 88th Street and Fifth Avenue for the last 45 years. 

However, the Guggenheim has no claim to the painting, according to the new suit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, which claims it was gifted to the museum by an art dealer who purchased it for pennies on the dollar when the owners, Karl and Rosi Adler, were trying to flee Nazi persecution in Germany in the late 1938 for Argentina.

'Woman Ironing' by Pablo Picasso hangs in the Guggenheim Museum
‘Woman Ironing’ by Pablo Picasso hangs in the Guggenheim Museum | Lluís Ribes Mateu

“By the time of Karl and Rosi’s arrival in Argentina,” the lawsuit states, “the Nazis had stripped them of their German citizenship and confiscated the entirety of Adler’s German-held assets, including his bank accounts and real estate, in addition to much of what they held in the Netherlands.”

Facing a crunch for cash, the Adlers sold the Picasso painting to Justin K. Thannhauser — son of the Paris art dealer from whom they had bought the painting more than two decades earlier — for $1,552, a fraction of the $14,000 price tag the work of art received just six years earlier.

“Thannhauser was buying comparable masterpieces from other German Jews who were fleeing from Germany and profiting from their misfortune,” the suit contends, adding that “as a leading art dealer of Picasso, [Thannhauser] must have known he acquired the painting for a fire sale price.”

“[He] 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,” court documents state.

Forty years later the Picasso painting would be gifted to the Upper East Side museum by Mr. Tannehauser following his death, according to the suit, where it has hung on display ever since.

The painting was gifted to the Guggenheim Museum in 1978
The painting was gifted to the Guggenheim Museum in 1978 | Taylor Heery

The descendants of the Adlers, led by grandson Thomas Bennigson and joined by several charitable organizations gifted a portion of the estates of the Adlers’ children, demand the Picasso painting be returned to its rightful owners or be paid restitution equal to the value of the painting, which they estimate to be up to $200 million.

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“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,” explains the lawsuit.

The Guggenheim Museum tells Upper East Site that it “takes provenance matters and restitution claims extremely seriously.”

“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 museum adds, noting that the lawsuit “strikingly fails to acknowledge, before taking the painting into its collection, the Guggenheim directly contacted Karl Adler’s son, Eric Adler, to confirm the painting’s provenance as part of its own research in the 1970s.”

The museum goes on to explain that “Eric Adler responded to the Guggenheim’s outreach in writing, confirmed the dates of his father’s ownership, and did not raise any concerns about the painting or its sale to Justin Thannhauser.”

According to the museum, “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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