Picasso portrait pulled from gallery wall in ownership row

The Times 28 March 2023
By Oliver Moody, Berlin

Its original owner, a Jewish banker, was forced to give it up when the Nazis came to power

Picasso’s Madame Soler was on display at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich

The German state of Bavaria has withdrawn a Picasso portrait from display amid mounting pressure to return it to the heirs of its original owner, a prominent Jewish banker who gave up much of his extensive art collection under the Third Reich.

Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a scion of one of Germany’s most distinguished Jewish dynasties, assembled a remarkable set of paintings by Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir and several other well-known artists.

After the Nazi regime came to power in 1933, however, he feared for his position as his wealth began to ebb away and he was sacked from the boards of several organisations.

Over the months before his death in 1935 he moved his five Picasso paintings across the Swiss border to Basel and entrusted them to Justin Thannhauser, a German-Jewish art dealer.

Many aspects of the case are disputed, including whether Thannhauser paid for the pictures and the degree of pressure on Mendelssohn-Bartholdy to offload them.

The collector’s heirs have spent the past two decades campaigning for their return, arguing that threats from the dictatorship and strain on his personal finances effectively forced him to transfer them out of Germany.

In 2009 the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum, both in New York, reached an out-of-court settlement with the heirs over two of the Picassos, Boy Leading a Horse and Le Moulin de la Galette.

Yet the fate of Picasso’s Madame Soler, a 1903 portrait of the wife of a tailor who supported the artist before he rose to fame, remains to be determined.

Thannhauser sold the painting to the state government of Bavaria in 1964 and it has hung for decades in the Pinakothek der Moderne, a modern art museum in Munich.

Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s descendants first attempted to sue for its return in 2013 through the US court system, but the lawsuits ran aground on questions of international jurisdiction. The Bavarian state insists the picture was legitimately and freely sold to Thannhauser.

Now, however, Claudia Roth, the federal culture minister, has told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that a resolution of the claim is “long overdue”. She hinted that she was drawing up a new law to govern disputes over artworks taken from the victims of Nazi persecution, which remain loosely regulated in Germany.

While the Bavarian state art collection declined to comment, the painting has been placed into storage, ostensibly for “curatorial reasons”.
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