When Karl and Rosi Adler fled the Nazis in 1938 they sold a Pablo Picasso painting to fund their escape. Now, their descendants are suing to get it back.
Heirs of the Adlers, who were German Jews, have filed a lawsuit against New York’s Guggenheim Museum, where the artwork has hung since 1978.
The plaintiffs say they are the rightful owners of Picasso’s 1904 oil on canvas “Woman Ironing,” and estimate it to be worth between $100 million and $200 million.
The Guggenheim is fighting the claim, describing it as “without merit,” with the case appearing to be heading for a civil trial.
The suit, filed in a Manhattan court on January 20, says Karl Adler bought the painting in 1916 from Heinrich Thannhauser, a Jewish gallery owner in Munich.
At the time, Karl, who ran a leading leather manufacturing company, and Rosi were living “a prosperous life” in Baden-Baden, in southwest Germany.
After the Nazis came to power in 1933, they were persecuted and lost their business and financial assets.
They fled Germany in June 1938, and lived in the Netherlands, France and Switzerland while awaiting permanent visas for Argentina.
To obtain short-term visas for the European countries, the Adlers in October 1938 sold “Woman Ironing” to Thannhauser’s son, Justin, who had left Germany for Paris.
They received $1,552 (worth $32,000 today) for the oil on canvas, nine times less than the $14,000 that Adler had it valued at six years earlier.
The plaintiffs argue this is evidence the painting was sold under duress.
“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,” reads the complaint.
Thannhauser gifted his art collection, including “Woman Ironing,” to the Guggenheim following his death in 1976.
The Guggenheim said the complaint “strikingly fails to acknowledge” that the museum contacted the Adlers’ son before taking ownership.
“(He) did not raise any concerns about the painting or its sale to Justin Thannhauser,” the statement added.
In 2014, Thomas Bennigson, the grandson of another Adler child learned that his grandmother may have once owned the painting.
His lawyers corresponded with the Guggenheim for several years before demanding the work’s return in June 2021, according to the lawsuit.
Bennigson’s complaint — which lists other distant relatives, several Jewish organizations and non-profits as co-plaintiffs, was made under America’s Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act.
The 2016 law provides victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs the opportunity to recover works of art seized by the Nazis.
The Guggenheim said it takes restitution claims “extremely seriously” but insists it is the “rightful owner.”
The museum said Adler’s sale to Thannhauser “was a fair transaction between parties with a longstanding and continuing relationship” and occurred while both men were “outside of Nazi Germany.”