National Gallery of Art Returns Picasso Work to Settle Claim

New York Times 31 March 2020
By Catherine Hickley

The heirs of a Jewish banker said the portrait of a woman was among the works he sold under duress when the Nazis took power.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington announced it will return a pastel drawing by Pablo Picasso, “Head of a Woman,” to the heirs of a prominent German-Jewish banker who was persecuted by the Nazis.

The 1903 Blue Period pastel of a dark-haired, unsmiling woman — her identity is unknown — is one of at least 16 masterpieces that the banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy sold in the months after the Nazis seized power and before his death in 1935.

A relative of the famous composer Felix Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was ousted from the Central Association of German Banks and Bankers in 1933 and from the board of the Reich Insurance Office in 1934. The family bank was “aryanised” — transferred to non-Jewish ownership — in 1938.

“Head of a Woman” was sold to the dealer Justin K. Thannhauser in 1934. The National Gallery of Art says it acquired the pastel as a donation in 2001.

The museum said it has decided to transfer ownership of the drawing in a settlement “to avoid the heavy toll of litigation.” The decision, it said, “does not constitute an acknowledgment of the merit or validity of the asserted claims.”

A representative for the heirs, who include the Berlin historian and political scientist Julius Schoeps, said there is no doubt that the work was sold as a result of persecution. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was subjected to boycotts, land expropriations, and the loss of many of his positions, said John J. Byrne, the heirs’ Washington lawyer.

“By 1934, his income had plummeted to 14 percent of what it had been in 1932,” he said. “His alimony payments were double his income. That is someone selling under economic duress.”

In 2009, just as a trial was about to begin in federal court in Manhattan, two New York museums — the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art — reached settlements with the heirs on two other Picassos that Mendelssohn-Bartholdy sold to Thannhauser under similar circumstances.

The museums had previously attempted to fend off the claims, which they said had “no basis,” by requesting a declaration confirming their ownership from the District Court for the Southern District of New York. The final terms of the settlements for the two works, “Le Moulin de Galette” and “Boy Leading a Horse,” were not disclosed, but both artworks remained in the museum collections.

Another Picasso, a painting once owned by Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, was acquired by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation in 1995. After reaching a settlement with the heirs, the foundation sold the work, the 1903 “Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto (The Absinthe Drinker)” for $51.8 million with commission at a Christie’s auction in London in 2010.
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