Who Should Own Nazi-Looted Art?

The Jewish Journal 12 November 2004
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

In a significant move by the U.S. government, FBI agents have seized a Picasso painting claimed as Nazi-looted art by a descendant of the original German Jewish owners.

Agents from the Los Angeles bureau confiscated the painting, valued at $10 million, at the Chicago home of the present owner, although allowing it to remain at the residence for the time being.

"This represents a strong signal by the government to dealers and collectors that Nazi-looted art must be returned, no matter how many hands it has passed through," said Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg.

In another development in this complex and contentious legacy of the Hitler regime, California courts are also dealing with a demand that actress Elizabeth Taylor return a prized van Gogh painting.

In contention in the Picasso case is his "Femme en Blanc" ("Woman in White"), showing a contemplative woman in a white gown, stemming from the painter's "classic" period after World War I.

It was originally purchased in 1925 by a Berlin couple, Robert and Carlota Landsberg. As the persecution of German Jews by the Nazis escalated, the Landsbergs sent the painting for safekeeping to a Paris art dealer in 1938.

When the German army took Paris in 1940, the art dealer fled and the Nazis looted his collection, including the Picasso painting.

After passing through various hands, the painting was purchased in 1975 from a private gallery by a Chicago art collector, Marilyn Alsdorf, for $357,000.

Alsdorf put the Picasso up for sale in 2001 through a Los Angeles art gallery, at which point London's Art Loss Registry made public the painting' s tainted provenance. The registry notified both Alsdorf, the present owner, and Thomas Bennigson, the grandson and sole heir of original owner Carlota Landsberg.

Bennigson, an Oakland law student, filed suit to recover the painting, but on the day of the initial hearing in the case in December 2000, Alsdorf transported the Picasso back to Chicago.

This action was unlawful, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, which charged that Alsdorf had transported the painting across state lines "with knowledge that it was stolen, converted or taken by fraud."

Attorney Schoenberg, representing Bennigson, applauded the government charge and subsequent FBI seizure of the painting, saying that, "A person who finally after 60 years tracks down a Nazi-looted painting shouldn't have to chase it from state to state."

In Chicago, Alsdorf and her lawyer are contesting Bennigson's claim, and suits and counter-suits are now pending in both Illinois and California courts to determine which state has jurisdiction in the matter.

Once that is settled, a court will determine the actual ownership of the wandering "Woman in White."

In the Elizabeth Taylor case, at stake is van Gogh's "View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint-Remy," which the actress bought 41 years ago for $257,000 at Sotheby's.

In a flurry of contending lawsuits pending in federal court in Los Angeles, it is charged that the painting had belonged to another Jewish art collector in Berlin, Margarete Mauthner.

Mauthner's great-grandson, Canadian attorney Andrew Orkin, claims that Taylor should have known that the painting "had likely been confiscated from a victim of Nazi persecution."

Taylor, who reportedly tried to sell the van Gogh for $10 million in 1990, responded that Mauthner had sold the painting in the 1930s to finance her family's immigration to South Africa and that there was "not a shred of evidence that the painting ever fell into Nazi hands."

Given the thorny legal and moral issues spawned by Nazi-looted art cases, the Beverly Hills Bar Association's Committee for the Arts will present a panel discussion on "Law, Justice and the Recovery of Holocaust Art" on Nov. 16 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Panelists will be attorneys Schoenberg, Thad Stauber, Steven E. Thomas and Simon Frankel, and Christine Steiner will moderate.

Both lawyers and laypersons are invited to the event, said Irena Raskin, chair of the arts committee, who noted that, "I cannot think of any aspect of art law more important than the recovery of Holocaust art, involving precedent-setting cases."

The panel discussion will be held Nov. 16, 4-7 p.m., at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Leo Bing Theater. 

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