Edited By: Fern Sidman
It appears that the topic of stolen art during the nightmarish Nazi era in Europe is once again in the headlines. Almost eight decades have passed since the Holocaust, yet complete justice has not been achieved.
According to a report in the New York Post, heirs of a Jewish couple that fled the Nazi onslaught during World War II in Europe are calling for the return of a Pablo Picasso painting valued today at up to $200 million. The painting was sold by their antecedents at practically next to nothing in order to escape certain death by the Nazi barbarians.
According to a lawsuit filed on Friday in Manhattan Supreme Court, the piece of art in question was given to the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York City as a gift from an art dealer who paid Karl and Rosi Adler only $1,552 for the painting. The desperate couple had little time to get out of Europe with their lives, the Post reported. The piece of art was created in 1904 by Picasso and was named, “Woman Ironing” (La repasseuse).
Five of the couple’s present-day heirs, some of whom are great grandchildren, argued in court that, “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, “ the Post reported.
The report also indicated that the relatives charge in the legal papers, that the “painting is currently in the wrongful possession of the Guggenheim” and they say that the foundation has refused to give it up. The report said that the relatives have demanded either the return of the painting or its estimated $100 million to $200 million value.
The owner of the piece was Karl Adler and when Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in the mid-1930s, Adler was the chairman of the board of directors for Europe’s largest leather manufacturer, the Post report said. He was also a married father of three.
In 1916, Adler bought the Picasso painting from Heinrich Thannhauser, who was at that time the owner of a prestigious art gallery in Munich, the Post reported.
In court papers, Adler’s heirs contend that his lives of Karl and and his family were “shattered” when “in 1933, the establishment of the Nazi regime in Germany’ wrought death and destruction for Europe’s Jews.” The Post also reported that the heirs recounted how Hitler swiftly enacted and enforced laws designed to strip Jews of their assets, and ruin their social and business lives.
The lawsuit filed by the heirs also said that in order to obtain the necessary funding to escape the Nazi onslaught, Adler was seeking about $14,000 for the painting. In today’s currency that would be equivalent to $300,000, the Post reported.
Adler did not sell the painting at that price but by 1937, Jews in Germany, including Adler, were stripped of their livelihoods and employment by the Nazis, the Post reported. In June 1938, the Adlers fled the country and they had planned to go to Argentina. Their plans, however, had changed, as they were forced to bounce around Europe while paying Nazi “flight taxes” and buying pricey short-term visas, the Post reported. It wasn’t until 1940 that they reached their South American destination.
Court papers also indicated that, “The Adlers needed large amounts of cash just to obtain short-term visas during their exile in Europe. Unable to work, on the run, and not knowing what the future would hold for them, the Adlers had to liquidate what they could to quickly raise as much cash as possible,” the Post reported.
In October 1938, the Adlers had no choice but to sell the “Woman Ironing” painting to Justin Thannhauser, the son of Munich art gallery owner, Heinrich Thannhauser for a mere $1,552. In today’s dollars that would be approximately $32,000, the Post reported.
Also in the lawsuit filed by the Adler heirs, they allege that, “Thannhauser was buying comparable masterpieces from other German Jews who were fleeing from Germany and profiting from their misfortune. 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,“ according to the Post report.
The legal filings also indicated that, “Had Karl and Rosi not fled when they did, they would have undoubtedly suffered a much more tragic fate at the hands of the Nazis.”
In 1957, Karl Adler returned to his home country, the Post reported, and while on the visit there he passed away. He was 85. His wife Rosi died at age 68 in Buenos Aires in 1946. In the court filings, the Adler heirs argued that neither Karl Adler or his children knew that they could file a claim for the Picasso “which they mistakenly believed had been lawfully acquired by Thannhauser.”
Citing the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act which was enacted in 2016 as the predicate for their lawsuit and the request they are making that the painting be returned to them, Adler’s great-grandchildren, including California lawyer Thomas Bennigson, and about 10 nonprofits named in the will of one of Adler’s children, are part of the lawsuit, as was reported by the Post.
For the California based Bennigson, this is not the first time that he has sought legal redress in terms of recovering his family’s stolen art during the Nazi era in Europe, the Post reported.
Bennigson’s mother was Carlota, the daughter of Karl and Rosi Adler. The Post reported that another Picasso painting which belonged to her and was called “Femme en blanc” that was done in 1922, ended up in the hands of an art collector in Chicago. In 2009, Bennigson won a $6.5 million settlement from the collector, according to the report.
The Picasso in question ended up in the Guggenheim in Manhattan when the younger Thannhauser later emigrated to New York. Upon his death in 1976, he eventually gifted his art collection, including “Woman Ironing,” to the iconic art museum, the Post reported.
The Guggenheim was first contacted by the Adler heirs in 2017 when they requested that the Picasso painting be returned to them as they were rightful heirs to its owner. The museum, however, refused to return the “unique and irreplacable” painting, the heirs contend in their lawsuit, as was reported by the Post.
The lawsuit stated that, “It is inequitable and against good conscience for the Guggenheim to continue to benefit from retention of the painting without payment.”
Having said that they take matters pertaining to restitution of looted art during the Nazi era “extremely seriously,” the powers that be at the Guggenheim dismissed the claim of the Adler heirs as being “without merit,” the Post reported.
For its part, the Guggenheim claimed that discussions over the Picasso in question were held for several years with attorneys representing the heirs of the Adlers. Moreover, the Guggenheim contends that it had also been in contact during the 1970s with Eric Adler, the son of Karl and Rosi Adler to ascertain the provenance of the painting and that they had also conducted “extensive research” on the history of the painting’s ownership, the Post reported. The foundation noted that Eric Adler had raised no red flags during the time that the museum was in contact with him, the report added.
According to the statement issued by the Guggenheim, “The action filed yesterday does not concern a painting that was stolen or seized by Nazi authorities. Rather, the painting at issue was sold by Karl Adler, a German Jew with extensive international business holdings, to Justin Thannhauser, a prominent Jewish art dealer, in late 1938 or early 1939.”
In order to gain some context of the thorny issue of Nazi looted art, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC stated on their web site that during the Second World War, Adolf Hitler mandated that other nations’ cultural property be obtained, often forcibly, for the greater good of the state. The Nazis targeted private Jewish collections, public museums and organizations deemed to be at odds with Nazi ideology, such as Freemasons. The USHHM also stated that their goals were both financial and cultural. Hitler wanted to enrich the Third Reich and its leaders with exquisite and culturally significant treasures, sell looted art that did not reflect the Reich’s ideals for foreign currency, and create the Führermuseum, envisioned as the cultural center of the world, in his hometown of Linz, Austria.
The USHMM also stated that the plunder and looting of art and other treasures was not limited to the Third Reich, however. The Soviet and American armies also participated, the former more thoroughly and systematically, the latter at the level of individuals stealing for personal gain. Other Axis countries also looted private Jewish collections.
The Washington Conference of Holocaust Era Assets (1998), followed by the Terezin Declaration (2009) renewed efforts to restitute cultural goods to their rightful owners. As a result various national organizations were created and numerous laws passed. Information about looted art has increasingly moved online, including databases of individual works still missing or items with unknown provenance, according to the USHMM web site.
In October 2022, the Jewish Voice reported that New York State had recently passed a law requiring museums to label art on display that was looted by Nazis. As per Crain’s, however, the well-intentioned law lacks details which would make it an effective means of holding the institutions accountable.
During World War II, Nazis looted over 600,000 pieces of art from Jews. Some of those pieces were destroyed but mostly the pricey art went into private collections, and hundreds of the paintings and sculptures eventually made their way to museums in New York. Restitution efforts to return artworks to their original owners or their descendants only succeeded in rare instances due to legal technicalities such as the statutes of limitations.
In mid-August, a law was signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, requiring NYS museums who have such pieces hanging, to place a sign in front of them which identifies them as art “which changed hands due to theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale or other involuntary means” by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. The law was passed as part of a legislative package, which aims to fight anti-Semitism by promoting Holocaust awareness, education in schools and support for survivors and their families.
The law, however, is only a paragraph long, and says that the state’s museums must “prominently place a placard or other signage” acknowledging the history of such works. A lot of the details are missing or vague and thereby open to interpretation. The new law also does not specify a means of enforcing the law but rather leaves the museums to make disclosures “to the extent practicable,” which would potentially let institutions off the hook in terms of allowing them to offer excuses about a lack of resources or space.
“If I’m being cynical, the law looks like something that’s passed to make legislators feel like they’re doing something without actually achieving something,” said Erin Thompson, associate professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. “To me, this is a measure that directs yet more attention to a well scrutinized area, but if you look at antiquities or stolen sacred artworks or objects taken from colonized countries, you don’t yet have that sustained scrutiny.”
Long Island state Sen. Ann Kaplan (D-Nassau), who wrote the law, said the main focus of the law is to get museums to acknowledge the fact, as a first step. “The spirit of the bill is to bring awareness,” Kaplan explained. “We’re not trying to make this difficult on museums. That’s why we left it at their discretion, but we hope that they do the right thing.” As per Crain’s, some critics also say the law should have included a way to make sure public funding wasn’t used in unethical ways by the museum to procure the art. Kaplan responded to this saying that it is “definitely worth looking into” for future regulation. “This new law compels museums to do the right thing and acknowledge the painful history of the Holocaust, and it’s self-policing by empowering the art community to get involved, speak out, and keep museums honest and accountable when they’re failing to do the right thing,” Kaplan previously told the Post.
The Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Brooklyn Museum all have pieces that will require signage. “We’re committed to this law because we know that these pieces have a history that tells a remarkable story about the 20th century,” said Andrea Bayer, deputy director of collections and administration at the Met. “A deeply distressing one, but one which now we hope these objects have found their final home.” Bayer added that the Met has asked the state for clearer guidelines.