Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Page 1


Dispute Over Painting Allegedly Stolen by Nazis Settled




A dispute over ownership of a Picasso painting allegedly stolen from its rightful owners by Nazis during the occupation of Paris has been resolved, attorneys said yesterday.

The agreement, which was brokered by U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Nagle in June but kept confidential up to now pending completion of paperwork by the lawyers, puts an end to lawsuits filed in the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara superior courts and the U.S. district courts for the Northern District of Illinois and the Central District of California over the 1922 painting “Femme en blanc.”

Thomas Bennigson, a Boalt Hall graduate living in Oakland, will receive $6.5 million from Chicago philanthropist Marilynn Alsdorf plus an undisclosed sum from New York art dealer Stephen Hahn, Bennigson’s attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg of the Los Angeles firm of Burris & Schoenberg told the MetNews.

In addition, Los Angeles art dealer David Tunkl will pay an undisclosed percentage of his commission to Bennigson if Alsdorf, who gets “incontestable title” to the painting under the agreement, sells it within the next three years.

Alsdorf, according to the agreement, “agreed to the settlement citing her advanced age and the need to resolve financial claims so her commitments to family and charitable organizations may be completed.” The painting has been hanging in Alsdorf’s apartment pending resolution of its ownership.

The 80-year-old Alsdorf “has very personal reasons” for settling, her attorney, Richard Chapman, told the Chicago Tribune.

Bennigson alleged that he was the lawful owner of the painting, which belonged to his late grandmother, Carlota Landsberg. Estimates of its value ranged as high as $10 million.

The complaint alleged that Landsberg sent the painting to a Paris art dealer when she fled Berlin in 1933, but that the Nazis stole it around 1940.

Purchased in New York

Alsdorf and her late husband purchased the painting from Hahn in New York in the late 1970s for more than $350,000. She sent it to Tunkl in December 2001.

Hahn signed an affidavit saying he had no knowledge it was linked to a Nazi looting. Alsdorf argued she had rights to the painting because before she bought it, Hahn purchased it legally from a French dealer.

Bennigson said he did not know the painting existed, or that it had belonged to his grandmother, until the summer of 2002. The source of the information, he said, was The Art Loss Register, an international organization which helps to locate and recover Nazi-looted art for Holocaust victims.

The Art Loss Register allegedly told Tunkl around the same time that Bennigson was the rightful owner, but Tunkl allegedly didn’t tell Alsdorf until Dec. 13, 2002. Alsdorf ordered Tunkl to send the painting back to Chicago that same day, Bennigson claimed.

Schoenberg said earlier that Alsdorf deliberately moved the painting to sidestep a new California law extending the statute of limitations on cases concerning Nazi-looted art. Schoenberg and his client sued in Los Angeles Superior Court, and were on the verge of obtaining a temporary restraining order to keep the painting from being moved at the time.

Forfeiture Action

The controversy took a new turn last fall when the U.S. government filed a forfeiture action here, under a statute dealing with forfeiture of stolen property that has moved in interstate commerce, and served Alsdorf with a warrant for the seizure of the painting. It was subsequently stipulated that Alsdorf could maintain possession until the case was resolved, and an assistant U.S. attorney, John Lee, participated in the settlement talks and signed off on the agreement. 

In April, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper denied Alsdorf’s motion to dismiss the forfeiture action or transfer it to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, where Alsdorf had sued to establish her ownership of the painting.

Cooper said the forfeiture action was properly brought here under traditional principles of in rem jurisdiction, since the U.S. marshal had seized the painting under process issued by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

As part of the settlement, the parties asked the California Supreme Court to vacate its grant of review of the Los Angeles Superior Court action.

The state high court had agreed to decide whether California state courts had jurisdiction in the matter. Div. Eight of this district’s Court of Appeal said they did not, concluding that Alsdorf did not subject herself to California’s jurisdiction by sending the painting to Tunkl’s gallery, where it was on display for eight months.


Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company