Whose Picasso is it?

The Chicago Tribune 19 January 2003
Howard Reich

When Chicago philanthropists James and Marilynn Alsdorf purchased Picasso's "Femme en blanc" ("Woman in White") from a New York art dealer in 1975, their receipt carried only three words regarding the painting's previous ownership: "Private Collection, Paris."

At the time, many art collectors and dealers did not bother to inquire whether a painting might have been looted by the Nazis from Holocaust victims, then resold after World War II on the international marketplace.

Today, few legitimate dealers, collectors or curators would touch a painting utterly lacking in documentation on its WWII-era provenance, for fear that a Holocaust survivor or an heir might emerge to prove that the art work had been stolen by the Germans. And a phrase as cryptic as "Private Collection, Paris" would be considered so vague as to raise more questions than it answers.

Art commerce has changed dramatically in the 28 years that Marilynn Alsdorf (whose husband died in 1990) has owned "Femme en blanc," which is why she finds herself at the center of a legal, moral and public debate over art works looted during the Holocaust.

Last month, Thomas C. Bennigson, heir of the Holocaust survivor who lost control of the painting during World War II, sued Alsdorf for $10 million, after negotiations between the parties broke down. The case has sparked claims and counterclaims regarding the painting's history, the nature of property law and the moral obligation of art collectors and dealers. And it has pitted Alsdorf against one of the most prominent art recovery organizations in the world, the London-based Art Loss Register, which first reported that the Picasso had been looted.

Last April, when the Art Loss Register informed Alsdorf that her Picasso was once Nazi loot, she became the latest in a long line of collectors facing circumstances that buyers today try hard to avoid.

"People are much more aware today that they need to know the history of an art work before they buy it," said Martha Wolff, a curator of painting at the Art Institute of Chicago.

"Yet even today you'd be surprised at how many dealers still do not provide very much information. We [curators] end up having to do a lot of research work ourselves.

"Not every dealer is equally careful."

Many major museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, inform the public via Web sites about artworks with questionable or unknown provenance, giving anyone with a claim easy access to information about a potentially looted painting.

But private collectors and art dealers often have taken a different tack. Many, like Alsdorf, walk away from settlement negotiations with claimants, seeking instead to defend their interests and their property in court.

Because Alsdorf's painting dates from Picasso's "classic" period (the years following World War I), its value to collectors and dealers is considerable.

"It's from a very highly sought after period of Picasso's career, so a fine picture of that period probably would be worth in the $10 to $15 million range today," said James Yood, lecturer and assistant chairperson in Northwestern University's department of art theory and practice.

"This painting was done at a time when Picasso returned to a kind of representational art. It's almost Picasso without tears. It is Picasso tied to the grand tradition. It does not engage in the Cubist exercises he did in other periods of his career.

"In the years after WWI, many artists returned to painting figures, with women as subject matter. It was more accessible art, a sort of calming gesture after the intense rhetoric of WWI."

But the high value of Picasso's "Femme en blanc" also has brought to this case immense media coverage, a factor in the brinkmanship between opposing sides.

Last month, when Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg filed suit on behalf of Holocaust heir Thomas C. Bennigson against Alsdorf and her associates, a cat-and-mouse game that had been played in private for nearly a year suddenly was laid bare for all the world to see.

"We've never really been very excited -- and Mrs. Alsdorf is not at all happy -- about trying the case in the press," said her attorney, Richard Chapman. "To the extent that she may be portrayed by some as a villain is very troubling to her."

Alsdorf declined to comment for this article.

Bennigson, the heir who sued Alsdorf once negotiations broke down in mid-December, also is disturbed by the unfolding drama.

"I don't know anything about Mrs. Alsdorf, but after the way her lawyers have been handling this, I can't say I love her," said Bennigson, a 44-year-old law student at the University of California at Berkeley.

"Their reaction seems to be, `Tough, what are you going to do about it?'

"If I were in Mrs. Alsdorf's position and found out that I had something that was stolen, I believe I'd say, `Let's work out something,' not dig in my heels."

In some instances, when a Holocaust survivor or heir has proven to a current owner that an artwork was stolen, the two parties have agreed to sell the work and split the proceeds equally.

But the parties battling over Picasso's "Femme en blanc" (also known as "Femme assise") appear well past the point of attaining such an amicable settlement. And though both sides say that an out-of-court settlement remains a possibility, the documents filed thus far in Los Angeles County Superior Court point to a don't-give-an-inch brawl.

Specifically, Schoenberg -- Bennigson's attorney -- accuses Alsdorf of yanking the painting back to Chicago last month from California, where it had been in the control of a Los Angeles gallery for more than a year. Alsdorf did so, Schoenberg alleges, to elude a law that went into effect Jan. 1 in California extending the statute of limitations on cases involving Nazi-looted art. Schoenberg obtained a temporary restraining order blocking the move of the painting to Chicago, though it was too late; the Picasso already was back in Alsdorf's possession.

Alsdorf denies in court documents that she was trying to avert California law in favor of a safer legal haven in Illinois, which does not have a law comparable to California's (nor does any other state). More important, the legal briefs filed on Alsdorf's behalf challenge every assertion made by Bennigson and the Art Loss Register, including the documentation that the painting was looted by the Nazis and that Bennigson is heir to the original owner.

With the two sides still fighting over jurisdiction -- whether the trial should proceed in California or Illinois -- it could be months before they get down to the substantive issues of the case.

Lost amid the legal maneuvers and posturing in the press, however, are the flesh-and-blood stories of the people who fled Nazi-era Germany to save their lives and the widely admired Chicago art philanthropists who ended up owning one of the Holocaust victims' artworks.

A hostile environment

Like many Jews in pre-WWII Berlin, Robert and Carlota Landsberg flourished in Germany yet felt as if they were outsiders in a potentially hostile place, said their grandson, Bennigson.

"Some of their apprehensions even predate the Nazis," recalled Bennigson. "There was the whole Jewish experience in Europe, of Jews wanting to assimilate but of not feeling fully a part of that society."

A widow since 1932, Carlota Landsberg and her daughter, Edith, stayed in Berlin and endured the horrors of Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938, when rampaging Nazis and their sympathizers burned synagogues, Jewish-owned businesses and homes in Germany and Austria.

"Immediately after that, people were telling them they better get out, for their own safety," added Bennigson, who often heard the story of the family's escape from Hitler's rapidly expanding empire.

Before Landsberg and her daughter fled, she sent the Picasso -- purchased in 1926 or '27 -- for safekeeping to a noted French art dealer in Paris, Justin K. Thannhauser, according to court documents and historical records. With the work vouchsafed in a city that the Nazis had not yet invaded, Landsberg and her daughter began an often frightening journey around the continent.

"They fled across Europe, to Switzerland, France, Spain and other places, and I was told there were many close calls," Bennigson said.

"At one point, they were in unoccupied France, and my mother [Landsberg's daughter, Edith] was detained on suspicion of being a German national. She had left her curtain open during a curfew, and the authorities suspected that she might be an agent, and that her leaving the curtain open might have been a kind of signal to the enemy.

"So, they were being held and feared that they wouldn't be released or get out before the Nazis got there.

"Finally they were let go and ended up in Argentina for a year, because that's where my grandmother's parents were."

The effects of the flight left emotional scars on Bennigson's mother and grandmother, he said, though each showed it differently.

"My grandmother was a fearful person. She kept that experience around with her," Bennigson said, "not in the sense of being shy and withdrawn -- she was actually rather outgoing -- but it was very hard for her to trust people. She was a very fearful person.

"My mother was a very different person than my grandmother: timid, shy, but also fearful."

Carlota Landsberg and her daughter settled in New York in 1940 or '41. Edith Landsberg married Rudolph Bennigson, a Holocaust survivor who had lost his immediate family in the concentration camps. The two had one child, Thomas Bennigson.

Shortly after the end of WWII, Carlota Landsberg began pursuing the Picasso painting, records show. Despite decades-long correspondence with the post-war governments of France and Germany and with a variety of European art dealers, Landsberg was unable to locate the Picasso.

In 1969, the restitution office of the German government determined that Landsberg had owned the Picasso, had stored it with Thannhauser but had never found it, according to correspondence from Landsberg's restitution file. Thus Landsberg was given 100,000 Deutschmarks in restitution (about $27,300), with the stipulation that if she ever retrieved the painting, she would be required to report it to the German restitution office and pay back the restitution amount.

Landsberg died in 1994 in New York without ever finding the painting.

Began collecting in 1950s

Chicagoans James and Marilynn Alsdorf made their fortune in business and investments and began collecting art in the 1950s, their international travels allowing them to view and acquire objects out of the reach of the ordinary art lover.

Everything about their pursuits, in fact, was extraordinary. The Alsdorfs attained a degree of knowledge in Southeast Asian art, in particular, that was admired even by experts in the field.

"When I met them, their interest was already quite deep," scholar Pratapaditya Pal, one of the world's leading specialists in Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art, told the Tribune in 1997.

Furthermore, the Alsdorfs developed a rich sense of civic pride, often donating works to Chicago art institutions. Even after James Alsdorf's death, in 1990, Marilynn Alsdorf remained fervently committed to art in Chicago. In 1997, she gave 400 objects of Indian and Southeast Asian art to the Art Institute of Chicago. That gift raised the stature of the institute's holdings of such items, which suddenly ranked alongside those of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

"In both its size and quality, [the Alsdorf gift] has few precedents in the history of this institution," said museum director James N. Wood when the gift was made.

Four years earlier, Marilynn Alsdorf had given the museum a collection of 81 pieces of Renaissance jewelry and endowed a gallery to display them.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, she is admired for the breadth of her generosity and the depth of her knowledge.

"Mrs. Alsdorf is the head of our committee on European painting, and she's a wonderful spokesman," said Gloria Groom, a curator in the Art Institute's department of European painting.

"She understands art. She kind of epitomizes the grand dame, in terms of elegance and always having something interesting to say.

"And she has presence. When she walks into a room, heads turn."

Supporters of restitution

Added Betty Seid, a research associate in the Art Institute's department of Asian art, "Mrs. Alsdorf has a very keen eye as a connoisseur. I think that she knows what she's doing."

Both Marilynn and James Alsdorf considered themselves supporters of early efforts in the field of art restitution.

"My late husband, James Alsdorf, was a board member of the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), which was created in 1969 to educate the public about problems and issues in the art world," Alsdorf said in a court declaration.

"IFAR helped expand the Art Loss Register's data base of lost artworks. The Alsdorf Foundation is currently a financial supporter of IFAR."

Adds Chapman, Alsdorf's attorney, "In essence, you're talking about somebody who's very close to the issue" of art recovery and restitution.

Closer, though, than Alsdorf may have imagined. After she sent her Picasso to the David Tunkl Fine Art Gallery, in Los Angeles, in September of 2001, Tunkl told her that he had a prospective buyer in France, Alsdorf said in court documents.

But once Tunkl sent the work to Europe, the Parisian art dealer who was interested in acquiring it did what many high-end art customers do these days: He contacted the Art Loss Register to check on the painting's WWII-era provenance.

Looted by the Nazis

The Art Loss Register, which has identified 21 paintings looted during WWII (including works by Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro), quickly determined that in 1947 the Picasso had been listed in an extensive text detailing Nazi plundered art, the "Repertoire des Biens Spolies En France Durant La Guerre 1939-1945." That reference work was among the first to detail artworks looted by the Nazis, and it listed the Picasso as having been taken from Thannhauser.

In April 2002, the Art Loss Register informed Alsdorf of this discovery, and Alsdorf immediately began discussions to resolve the matter.

"This letter shall authorize you to negotiate directly with my attorney Stephen Bernard as he has my complete and absolute authority to negotiate a resolution of your claim of interests," wrote Alsdorf to the Art Loss Register on April 30, 2002.

But as the Art Loss Register continued its investigation -- with inquiries in France, Germany and Switzerland -- it learned that Thannhauser did not own the painting but had been holding it for Carlota Landsberg.

The documentation was vast, including a photo of the painting from Thannhauser's estate with the words "Stolen by the Germans" and "Carlota Landsberg" written on the reverse side; a 1927 book on Picasso indicating the painting was owned by Robert Landsberg; documents from France's Ministres des Affaires Etrangeres specifying that the painting was on deposit with Thannhauser but "the property of Mme de Landzberg" and that many other paintings from Thannhauser's apartment had been looted by the Nazis' Mobel-Aktion forces; and documents from a 1969 finding by the German restitution office that the painting had been looted by the Nazis and that Landsberg, not Thannhauser, was owed restitution, which she received.

In addition, the Art Loss Register learned that the painting was exported from France to New York in 1975, the same year the Alsdorfs acquired it, by the Renou & Poyet gallery in Paris. During WWII, that gallery was known as Renou & Colle, and a report from the United States' Office of Strategic Services on that Paris gallery called it a "firm of art dealers who handled looted art, notably from the Paul Rosenberg Collection."

Letter confirmed ownership

Last summer, when the Art Loss Register located Landsberg's heir, Bennigson, he examined his grandmother's papers and discovered a letter to Carlota Landsberg from Thannhauser confirming everything the Art Loss Register had learned.

"As I remember very clearly, and as I therefore can confirm to you in writing, in 1938 or 1939 you sent your Painting by Picasso, of a woman, from the so-called classical period of the artist, to me in my house in Paris, 35 [Rue] Mirosmenil," Thannhauser wrote to Landsberg in 1958.

"At this time, as we were forced to leave our home in Paris in 1939, your Picasso hung in the middle of a small wall. Upon the occupation of Paris in 1940, when we were no longer in Paris and the house was closed, the entire contents of the four-story building -- and with it your Painting -- were stolen. . . . [And] during the four-day long violent German national socialist plundering everything was taken out of the four-story house during the night and placed in trucks. . . .

"As you know, I have often tried to find a trace of this oil Painting, as well as all of the other property that disappeared at the same time, but until now without success."

It was not until last month that Alsdorf learned the claimant was not Thannhauser's estate but Landsberg's heir, and at that point she broke off negotiations.

"When I learned that the Art Loss Register had changed its position about the history of the painting, after it had made clear representations regarding its authority to resolve another claimant's claim, I felt very uncomfortable about the reliability of the conclusions that the Art Loss Register had reached about the painting," said Alsdorf in her court declaration.

Added Chapman, her attorney, "When this issue came up, I believe Mrs. Alsdorf felt extremely uncomfortable with the fact that there were negotiations ongoing with a party whose standing and whose representation was at best questionable," a reference to the Art Loss Register.

"I'm not suggesting that they were lying or [operating] in bad faith, I'm only suggesting that, not having the benefit of hindsight, what she [Alsdorf] was hearing was somebody who was unclear as to who they were representing."

Courts need to decide

Furthermore, Alsdorf and Chapman believe that documentation showing the history of the painting during WWII needs to be tested in court and that the German government's finding that the painting had been looted from Landsberg can be successfully challenged.

"I think we have a duty to ask the hard questions," Chapman said. "In 1969, the job of figuring out what happened in 1939 is not a whole lot easier than the job that a court has now. Even 30 years later, it presents the same issues and the same questions of proof.

"And the other issue that I think we ought to be considering is that there may be a different standard of proof that was reflected at that time and in that place [Germany in 1969] than the standard of proof that's going to be applicable here."

But if Alsdorf and her representatives are skeptical of the evidence that Bennigson and the Art Loss Register have produced, what information do they have about the painting's provenance during WWII?

"What we know about the painting is when she acquired it in '75 from the dealer," said Chapman, referring to dealer Stephen Hahn, whose gallery was at 960 Madison Ave. in New York when the Alsdorfs purchased the Picasso from him.

"More than that I can't say. I just don't know," Chapman said. "So, I can't tell you, for example, did the painting change hands four times prior to Mr. Hahn's acquisition? I don't know that."

Neither, apparently, does Hahn.

"When I saw that picture almost 30 years ago, nobody asked anything about those things," said Hahn, who is retired and lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"Mrs. Alsdorf called me [recently], and I gave her all the information I had and where I bought it. That's all I know."

But the era in which art dealers and owners cite ignorance of a painting's provenance as a defense against owning looted art may be ending, judging by the spate of civil lawsuits that have been filed in recent years in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, London, Prague and beyond.

And though Alsdorf attorney Chapman disputes the contention of the current lawsuit that "a thief cannot convey good title," asserting that in some states and some nations good title can be obtained if a purchase is made in good faith, he believes that this case is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to looted art.

"We're absolutely in favor of debate and discussion of hard issues such as these, and public debate dealing with situations where there is a general question posed, and an attempt to bring resolution out of what seems unresolvable," Chapman said.

"The ownership of this particular painting is neither the beginning nor the end of that resolution process."

On that, at least, all parties can agree.

'Femme en blanc': A trail leads from France to Chicago

Unlike many paintings claimed to have been looted by the Nazis during World War II, Pablo Picasso's "Femme en blanc" has a well-documented trail.

1922 Picasso paints "Femme en blanc" (also known as "Femme assise").

1926 or '27 Robert and Carlota Landsberg, Jews living in Berlin, purchase the painting.

1932 Robert Landsberg dies.

1938 or '39 Carlota Landsberg sends painting to the noted Parisian art dealer Justin Thannhauser for safekeeping, then flees Berlin.

Aug. 10, 1939 Thannhauser leaves Paris, returning after the war.

1942 Nazis loot Thannhauser's Paris home of all its art, including the Picasso.

1947 Painting is listed in a reference work detailing looted art works.

1958 Thannhauser writes to Carlota Landsberg, stating that painting was looted by Nazis.

1969 German government determines that Nazis looted painting from Thannhauser's home and that painting had belonged to the Landsbergs..

1975 James and Marilynn Alsdorf purchase painting from Stephen Hahn Gallery, New York, for $357,000

1990 James Alsdorf dies.

1994 Carlota Landsberg dies.

Sept. 20, 2001-Oct. 28, 2001 Alsdorf displays painting at David Tunkl Fine Art Gallery, Los Angeles.

Dec. 2001 Art Loss Register is asked by French art dealer, who is considering acquiring painting, to check its World War II provenance. Art Loss Register determines painting was looted.

Early 2002 Los Angeles gallery owner Tunkl sends painting to Europe, at Alsdorf's request, for possible sale.

April 2002 Marilynn Alsdorf is informed by the Art Loss Register that painting was looted by Nazis; she commences negotiations on possible setlement.

Summer 2002 Art Loss Register determines painting belonged to the Landsberg family and locates its heir, Thomas C. Bennigson, of Oakland, Calif.

Dec. 13, 2002 Alsdorf meets with Tunkl in Chicago and asks for return of painting.

Dec. 18, 2002 Alsdorf ends negotiations on settlement. Bennigson files suit against Alsdorf and Tunkl in Los Angeles.

Jan. 9, 2003 Judge David P. Yaffe continues until February arguments concerning jurisdiction of dispute.

Source: Court documents
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