The heirs of a German Jewish collector persecuted during World War II are taking legal action to recover ownership of a painting by Pablo Picasso that now resides in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The descendants believe the painting is worth up to $200 million.
According to a lawsuit filed against the museum in a Manhattan court on Friday, relatives of the original owners, Karl Adler and Rosi Jacobi, and a group of Jewish nonprofits sought the return of Picasso’s 1904 canvas Woman Ironing.
The painting, which was produced during Picasso’s early Blue Period, shows a frail woman bent over while ironing. According to a note published on the museum’s website, it is a “quintessential image of travail and fatigue” that Picasso’s produced in his early 20s.
In the court documents, Adler’s West Coast–based descendant Thomas Bennigson claims the couple sold their collection while taking a financial loss as they prepared to flee Nazi persecution in Germany in 1938. According to the lawsuit, Benningson claims his relatives were forced to relinquish the Picasso “well below its actual value.” Benningson alleges that Adler would not have otherwise parted with the piece at the time he did “but for the Nazi persecution.”
Adler, who was active as an art collector in the early 20th century, served as chairman of a namesake German-based leather manufacturer. According to the suit, he was targeted under Nazi policy that stripped Jews of their wealth.
Adler acquired the Picasso painting from a Munich-based dealer Heinrich Thannhauser in 1916, only to sell the painting back to the dealer’s son Justin Thannhauser in October 1938. The suit claims Adler sold the painting in order to raise cash to fund short-term visas in order to flee Germany. The couple eventually landed in Argentina in 1940.
The suit states that the dealer repeatedly loaned the work to museums from 1939 on, citing its insurance values between $20,000 to $25,000. The suit claims that price was far inflated from the $1,385 he received from Adler to purchase it. Decades after war, Thannhauser posthumously gifted the work to the museum in 1978.
The suit alleges that Guggenheim is in “wrongful possession” of the work. The heirs first filed a claim to recover the painting in June 2021.
“The Guggenheim takes provenance matters and restitution claims extremely seriously,” a museum representative said in a statement. The museum said that it 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 statement pointed out that the complaint filed over the weekend “strikingly fails to acknowledge” that the Guggenheim contacted the former owner’s son, Eric Adler, to confirm the painting’s ownership while researching the work in the 1970s. No members of the family raised concern over the work, according to the Guggenheim.
The museum claims that Adler’s sale of the painting to Thannhauser was “a fair transaction between parties with a longstanding and continuing relationship.”
It is not the first time the New York institution has dealt with a legal battle over art linked to Thannhauser. In 2009, the museum settled with the heirs of another persecuted collecting family over the Picasso painting Le Moulin de la Galette; the family claimed Thannhauser acquired it as a “product of economic duress.”
And in December, another group of descendants from a different collector sued the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York over the 1970s sale of a van Gogh painting alleged to have been improperly sold by Thannhauser during the war.