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Picasso Si, Picasso La: Pending Legal Actions Involving Two Picasso Paintings

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), man of many talents, was arguably the most influential and versatile artist of the 20th. His works are perennially coveted and ubiquitous. Everybody who is anybody had, has or will have a Picasso, be it an individual collector, a museum or an auction house. In the recent months, two of his works, one from the blue period and one from his early cubist days, have been subject of intense international scrutiny and legal action.

Madame Soler (1903)

On March 27, 2013, Julius H. Schoeps, Britt-Marie Enhoerning and Edelgard von Lavergne-Peguilhen, jointly the heirs of a prominent German-Jewish Banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy filed suit against the German State of Bavaria in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to recover a valuable painting formerly in the collection of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. In a 103-page complaint, they are seeking either possession of a Pablo Picasso portrait Madame Soler or a $100,000,000 judgement against Defendant.

While in Barcelona in 1903, the young Picasso painted three depressing blue and gray portraits for the tailor Soler family members, possibly in exchange for clothes made by the tailor. The collection is thought to have been dispersed as early as 1910s because “none of the family members liked it very much.” Josep Palau i Fabre: Picasso: The early years, 1881-1907, (New York 1981) 327. Nevertheless, the portrait of Madame Soler found its appreciators: it appeared in the 1913 Armory Show; it was part of the renowned Parisian dealer D.H. Kahnweiler’s inventory, and ultimately it became a part of the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy collection in Germany. In the complaint, the heirs assert that this painting was one of many that were lost by the collector as a result of the Nazi persecution.

The complaint alleges that Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s collection before the war contained more than 50 important masterworks and that he was forced against his will to sell parts of the collection, as indicated by the fact that before the Nazi-ascent to power, for a quarter of a century, the collector had never sold important objects from his collection.

In 1965, the now contested painting was sold by a New York-based dealer Justin K. Thannhauser to the Bavarian State Paintings Collection (the “Museum”) for $285,700. According to the complaint, the heirs have been trying to get the painting back since 2009. Accused of fraudulent behavior and unclean hands in hiding the provenance of the painting in question, the Museum apparently never agreed to submit this dispute to the German Limbach Commission, an entity established by the German federal government specifically to review the claims for the recovery of Nazi era artworks.

As a review, two other Mendelssohn-Bartholdy owned paintings were subject of the protracted litigation in Julius H. Schoeps, et al. v. Museum of Modern Art, 594 F. Supp.2d 461, 466 (S.D.N.Y. 2009). Parties ultimately reached a confidential settlement to the great disapproval of the presiding Judge Jed Rakoff.

Attorneys for the heirs now are John J. Byrne, Jr. and Thomas Hamilton, with Byrne, Goldenberg & Hamilton, PLLC.

Compotier et Tasse (1909) 

Another Picasso painting tied up in legal proceedings is an early cubist still life, called Compotier et Tasse. This work was consigned for a private sale for an estimated $11.5 million but the US Government obtained a restraining order to block the sale.

The owners, Gabriella Amati and her late husband, Angelo Maj, both from the city of Naples are accused of diverting about $44 million of the city’s tax revenue. The painting was purchased with allegedly ill gotten funds. While the Italian authorities are investigating and prosecuting Seigniora Amati on charges of embezzlement and multiple counts of fraud, the Picasso is under arrest.

Source: Huffington Post; MMDNewsWire; Bloomberg; Julius H. Schoeps, et al. v. State of Bavaria, 1:13-cv-02048-UA (Mar. 27, 2013).