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Parties settle over Picasso ‘sold under duress’

1970
1945
Antiques Trade Gazette 11 January 2010

An agreement over the disputed Blue Period Picasso painting The Absinthe Drinker may well lead to a clearer legal definition of what constitutes art sold under Nazi duress.

The heirs of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy reached a confidential settlement with Trustees of The Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation and have now relinquished their claim to the painting, a 1903 portrait of Picasso’s friend Angel Fernandez de Soto.

The agreement, which was reached in Washington, DC, is just the latest in a series of such claims concerning art that was not looted by the Nazis, but which appears to have changed hands as a result of pressure applied by the regime on Jewish owners.

What seems to have helped the Mendelssohn heirs’ argument in particular was evidence that Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy drew up a will – known as a Verfolgten-Testament because it was designed to protect property from the Nazis – three months before he died, bequeathing his art collection to his wife.

However, before he died he sold at least two Picasso paintings, Le Moulin de la Galette and Boy Leading a Horse, to the Jewish art dealer Justin Thannhauser.

It is believed that he may have done this to stop the works falling into Nazi hands.

The Mendelssohn heirs reached a settlement in 2009 with the Museum of Modern Art regarding Boy Leading a Horse (1905) and with the Guggenheim Foundation concerning Le Moulin de la Galette.

Instances which could be considered examples of duress include where a Jewish owner sold art to protect it from seizure by the Nazis or to raise money after the Nazis had deprived them of their livelihood. Effectively, these could be considered forced sales, with good title not changing hands.

Evidence of art being sold at considerably less than market value would point to this as well.

However, despite a number of claims and settlements made on the ‘duress’ basis in courts across the US and elsewhere, judges have yet to give a clear legal definition of what ‘duress’ means.

In the case of The Absinthe Drinker, the Andrew Lord Lloyd Webber Art Foundation (who had bought the painting at Sotheby’s New York in 1995 for $26.5m) first faced claims of rightful ownership in November 2006, just days before the picture was to be offered by Christie’s New York with an estimate of $40m-60m.
 

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