Los Angeles Daily Journal 27 October 2004
By Tina Spee
Daily Journal Staff Writer
LOS ANGELES - Los Angeles federal agents are trying to seize a $10 million Picasso painting looted by the Nazis during World War II.
The agents late last week served Chicago art collector Marilynn Alsdorf with a forfeiture complaint, stating that Alsdorf knowingly shipped stolen property - that is, the painting - from California to Illinois.
"We thought that the evidence of the theft by the Nazis was very strong, it was very well-documented and that it was an appropriate situation for our office to be involved in," says John E. Lee, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case. U.S. v. One Oil Painting Entitled "Femme en Blanc" by Pablo Picasso. 'Femme En Blanc'
The Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office complaint comes on the heels of the state Supreme Court's decision to hear matters related to a lawsuit filed by Boalt Hall student Thomas Bennigson laying claim to the painting "Femme En Blanc."
Bennigson filed suit against Alsdorf after learning that his German grandmother, Carlota Landsberg, had owned the painting before the Nazis stole it in the 1940s.
Landsberg had placed the painting with a Paris art dealer for safekeeping after the Nazis swept to power.
It resurfaced after Alsdorf, who purchased the painting from a New York art dealer in the 1970s, put it on the market in 2001. Alerted to the painting's existence, Bennigson filed suit to recover it. Eight-Month Appearance
Alsdorf sent the painting to a Los Angeles art dealer to be seen by prospective buyers but shipped it back to Chicago the morning she was scheduled to appear to defend against Bennigson's request for a temporary restraining order to keep the art in Los Angeles.
Alsdorf's attorney later successfully argued that the painting's eight-month appearance in Los Angeles was not enough to establish jurisdiction in California courts. An appellate court agreed. Bennigson v.
Alsdorf B168200 (Cal. App. 2nd Dist. April 15, 2004).
But in July, the state Supreme Court decided to hear arguments surrounding the jurisdictional issues in the case.
Bennigson's attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, a name partner at Los Angeles' Burris & Schoenberg, said he agreed with the U.S. attorney's office that Alsdorf knowingly transported stolen property across state lines.
"We feel that law needs to be enforced ... against people who find out that they have looted paintings and, even in the face of a mountain of evidence, decide that it's appropriate to keep the painting and ship it and try to avoid returning the painting," Schoenberg said.
According to the federal prosecutor's complaint, Landsberg purchased the painting in the 1920s, but it disappeared after Landsberg fled to escape persecution by the Nazis.
On her departure from Europe, Landsberg gave the painting to a Parisian art collector for safekeeping, but German soldiers stole it when they looted the collector's home in the 1940s.
When Alsdorf put the painting on the market in 2001, London's Art Loss Registry uncovered its history and informed Bennigson, Landsberg's rightful heir.
Alsdorf's attorney, Roscoe C. Howard Jr. of the Washington, D.C., office of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, said he wouldn't rule out a jurisdictional defense against the forfeiture order.
"Obviously, we want to take a hard look at what they allege and what they say," Howard said.
The U.S. attorney's civil forfeiture complaint will be heard by U.S.District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper. A court date has not been set. Alsdorf will be allowed to keep the painting until the complaint is resolved, lawyers said.
Alsdorf also has filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against Bennigson, trying to secure title to the painting.
On Friday, Schoenberg filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing Illinois is not the proper venue for the claim.
"Hopefully, we'll let a court decide that," Howard said. "And we've got a number of courts involved."