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the summer of 2002, a UC Berkeley law student received an oddly cagey
phone call. Was he Tom Bennigson? the caller asked.
And did he have a grandmother named Carlota Landsberg?
In that case, the caller had located a painting originally belonging to
his grandmother that was potentially of some value.
Bennigson knew that in 1938, his grandmother and his mother Edith, then
a teenager, had fled Berlin to escape the Nazis. They'd been members of
a fairly well-off Jewish family connected to the banking industry. Aided
by friends and strangers who sheltered them, the two women began a yearlong
journey that took them through Switzerland, France, Spain, and Argentina
before they finally settled in New York City. There, Edith got married
and gave birth to Tom. Both of Bennigson's parents died when he was young,
and he says his grandmother, who passed away in 1994, made little mention
of her flight from her home country, or of what she had left behind.
And now this caller was telling him his grandmother had owned a valuable
painting, although the title and artist could not be revealed just yet.
Bennigson smelled a rat. "I was kind of waiting for them to say,
"Send us a check for $10,000 and we'll do everything we can to recover
this painting for you,'" he recalls.
But it was no scam: The call was from the Art Loss Register, an international
agency that seeks to recover stolen works. Collectors considering a major
buy can consult the register to see whether their intended purchase has
a clean history. If it doesn't, the agency works to track the original
owners (or their heirs) and negotiate a settlement. In this case, a potential
buyer had approached the register to double-check the provenance of a
1922 Pablo Picasso oil painting titled Femme en Blanc (Lady
in White). Current asking price: $10 million-plus.
The register's investigation turned up a tumultuous history indeed: Bennigson's
grandmother, the agency determined, had indeed owned Femme en Blanc,
a portrait of a dark-haired woman sedately holding a book. Before leaving
Berlin, Carlota Landsberg had entrusted care of the painting to Justin
K. Thannhauser, a renowned art dealer who had been one of Picasso's earliest
champions. The dealer also was a German Jew. He had moved to Paris thinking
it would be safer, but in 1939, with the writing on the wall, Thannhauser
departed for the United States, leaving much of his prodigious art collection
behind. The following year, during the Nazi occupation of France, his
home was looted and the Picasso was among the works taken.
In a 1958 letter to Landsberg, Thannhauser confirmed that the painting
had been in his home, and described the ransacking of his house as witnessed
by the domestic servants who remained. "During the four-day-long
violent German National Socialist plundering, everything was taken out
of the four-story house during the night and placed in trucks," he
wrote. "I have often tried to find a trace of this oil painting,
as well as all the other property that disappeared at the time, but until
now without success."
Carlota Landsberg also spent many fruitless years trying to retrieve her
painting. In 1969, she even signed a settlement with the German government
acknowledging its theft, and was paid 100,000 deutsche marks, or about
$27,000. The settlement did not release her claim on the painting -- the
money was to be repaid and the portrait returned to her if it were ever
Decades went by, and the painting remained lost. Bennigson, the only child
of Landsberg's only child, became its sole heir, although he didn't know
it existed. Bennigson, a mildly scruffy guy with a distinct unease about
discussing large amounts of money, spent most of his adult life studying
and teaching philosophy, and then moved to Oakland to enroll at UC Berkeley's
Boalt School of Law, intending to become a public-interest lawyer. Then,
out of the blue, came the call saying that a valuable Picasso was his
There was only one problem: It belonged to someone else, someone who lived
far away and had no intention of giving it up. So began one of the highest-stakes
art lawsuits currently on US dockets.
Last week, after nearly eighteen months of rancorous legal arguments,
the state Supreme Court agreed to decide whether California courts can
claim jurisdiction in a case stemming from a 64-year-old Nazi crime, involving
an objet d'art that has crossed numerous state and national borders. Once
that question is resolved, the aggressive courtship of the Lady in White
will begin in earnest.
Femme en Blanc had been
considered "lost" since 1940, but at least one person has known
full well where it's been for the past thirty years: wealthy Chicago art
collector Marilynn Alsdorf, who had the Picasso hanging in her home. She
and her late husband James Alsdorf, who made his fortune as an exporter
and glass manufacturer, have been hailed as generous patrons of the arts,
particularly after bestowing upon the Chicago Art Institute a four-hundred-piece
collection of Asian and Indian works. The Alsdorfs purchased Femme
en Blanc in 1975 from New York art dealer Stephen Hahn for what now
seems like a very reasonable $375,000. The sales receipt stated only that
it had come from a private collection in Paris.
"There was not anything lengthy done to discuss the origins of the
painting, and I don't believe that was unusual then," says Richard
Chapman, one of Ms. Alsdorf's attorneys. After all, he says, those were
the pre-electronic-database days; there was no Art Loss Register to call
upon, and researching a painting's origin could be difficult and expensive.
The Alsdorfs, he says, were buying through a reputable dealer and had
no reason to suspect anything. Ironically, their foundation has helped
finance the International Foundation for Art Research, a nonprofit that
does outreach work on art authenticity and theft issues, and helped create
the Art Loss Register and its database of looted artwork.
The Picasso stayed in the Alsdorf home until 2001, when it was sent to
a Los Angeles gallery called David Tunkl Fine Art. It was shown there
for one month, then shipped to Switzerland for examination by a potential
buyer. The buyer contacted the Art Loss Register for a background check,
and lo and behold, Femme en Blanc showed up as a looted artwork
from the Second World War.
When he was first approached about the painting, Bennigson says, he understood
that the register usually settled disputes without lawsuits. After all,
the agency frequently learns of missing artworks because they are in the
process of changing hands, and the parties involved are usually willing
to negotiate a settlement so the sale can proceed. According to Sarah
Jackson, the register's historic claims director, one party will sometimes
keep the art and pay a portion of its value to the other; other times,
one owner will sell the art and split the proceeds with the other. "Where
possible," Jackson says, "litigation should be avoided in favor
But Bennigson's case had an unfortunate complication: The Art Loss Register
had initially identified someone else as heir. In fact, when the agency
first contacted Alsdorf, it claimed the legitimate owner was the Silva
Casa Foundation, a Swiss organization that is the legacy of art dealer
Thannhauser. Shortly afterward, the register concluded that Bennigson,
not the foundation, was the true heir because Thannhauser had essentially
When first informed of the painting's contested status in April 2002,
current owner Alsdorf hired the Los Angeles gallery's attorney to negotiate
with the Art Loss Register and the Silva Casa Foundation. Believing the
search for a buyer could continue during negotiations, the painting was
returned to Tunkl's Los Angeles gallery for the rest of that year. But
once the register admitted it had made a mistake, and Bennigson emerged
as the new claimant, things got testy.
Initially, Bennigson says, he was willing to negotiate for a portion of
the painting's value, but he felt put off by what he interpreted as Alsdorf's
cavalier attitude toward his family's loss. "If this woman had been
like, 'That's shocking, let's do something about it, let me substantiate
this,' and if we'd split it down the middle -- she'd been planning to
sell it at that time -- it would have seemed okay to me," he says.
"It no longer seems okay to me. I'm sort of embittered." Ultimately,
Bennigson demanded the painting be given to him. Alsdorf's legal team
That December, Bennigson hired E. Randol Schoenberg to represent him.
It was a strategic choice: Not only was the lawyer based in Los Angeles,
where the painting was, but he'd recently made a name for himself in the
art-litigation realm by winning a precedent-setting case for his family
friend, Maria Altmann. Her uncle had owned six Gustav Klimt paintings
that were looted by the Nazis after Austria was annexed in 1938. They'd
been stolen as part of the "Aryanization" program that gave
non-Jews the right to seize Jewish property. The paintings eventually
ended up in the Austrian National Gallery. This summer, the US Supreme
Court ruled that Altmann has the right to sue the Austrian government
in American courts to recover her family's property. It was a landmark
case, something of a surprise victory that may yield a huge payoff for
Altmann -- the paintings are worth an estimated $150 million.
With his client's potential Picasso still in Los Angeles, Schoenberg wasted
no time. On December 19, 2002, he filed a lawsuit demanding the return
of the painting and asking the court for a temporary restraining order
to keep it in the state.
But at the crack of dawn on December 20, the Picasso was on a plane bound
Alsdorf's team characterizes the painting's last-minute flight as an innocent
coincidence. In her court declaration, Alsdorf claimed she was dismayed
at the confusion resulting from the Art Loss Register's mistake. Sensing
that any potential sale would be off, she'd decided to have the painting
returned to her home. "When I learned that the Art Loss Register
had changed its position about the history of the painting, after it had
made clear representations regarding its authority to resolve another
claimant's claim, I felt very uncomfortable about the reliability of the
conclusions that the Art Loss Register had reached," her court declaration
Alsdorf's lawyers say their client ordered the painting's return on December
13 -- nearly a week before the suit was filed. It was picked up from the
gallery on the 18th and prepared for shipping. At that time, her lawyer
says, Alsdorf was unaware she was being sued in California, and the restraining
order wasn't actually served on her until three hours after the plane
But Schoenberg and Bennigson view Alsdorf's actions as an attempt to dodge
the California courts, which, after all, they had chosen for a reason.
The state had just passed a law extending until 2010 the statute of limitations
for claims on Nazi-looted artworks. And while the new law was aimed at
galleries and museums keeping Nazi-looted art -- not private collectors
like Alsdorf -- it was interpreted by Bennigson's team as a favorable
Alsdorf's attorneys, Schoenberg insists, knew Bennigson was the only party
then laying claim to the painting. The Silva Casa Foundation had dropped
its claim the previous summer, he notes, and the two sides had been in
negotiation talks for months. "There wasn't any confusion,"
the lawyer says. "She just wanted the painting back because she'd
be in a better litigation position."
Bennigson believes Alsdorf's team is raising the jurisdictional argument
only to delay a trial they can't win. "They're basically just doing
everything they can to drag it out. It's like, 'Hey, we have it and you
don't,'" he says.
Alsdorf's attorney begs to differ. "This isn't just a methodology
of 'How do we escape Tom Bennigson?'" Chapman says. The jurisdictional
issue is important, he insists, especially since it's so hard to pin down
where any sort of prosecutable crime took place. Was it in New York, where
the Alsdorfs accidentally purchased stolen property? Or in France, where
the looting took place? It certainly shouldn't be in California, he says,
since the painting never changed hands there, nor had Alsdorf lived or
conducted business in the state.
So far, a Los Angeles trial court and a state appeals panel have taken
Alsdorf's side. But even if the state Supreme Court rules in her favor,
the fight will simply relocate to Illinois, and the jurisdictional bickering
will have been a mere warm-up act for the main event.
In the impending battle over
ownership, the art collector's argument goes like this: Alsdorf is the
only person in this fight with a bill of sale, and she bought the painting
in good faith.
"She didn't do anything wrong and she paid real, live money at the
time," attorney Chapman says. Since he's in pre-litigation, he won't
say too much about how he'll defend his client's claim, except that he
intends to raise a number of very pointed questions: "You say you
owned it -- how do you know?" he says. "How much was it? Where
is the bill of sale? How do you know it was stolen? Did someone file a
police report? Did they arrest anyone?"
The lawyer is well aware he'd be asking the impossible. "Of course
you can't answer these questions -- we're dealing with wartime in France,"
Bennigson dismisses as ludicrous the expectation that his grandma would
have taken her receipts with her as she fled Berlin. "If you think
of somebody being a refugee across Europe, they're not going to carry
a filing cabinet of papers with them," he says. But although the
law school grad can't produce a sales receipt, he can produce other documents
linking his grandma to the Picasso, including the Thannhauser letter,
an inventory of art stolen from France by the Nazis that includes the
painting, the settlement papers from the German government, and a 1927
art catalogue that lists the painting as the property of the Landsbergs.
"In this case there's really a clear paper trail," he says.
On top of that, Schoenberg says, if the defense is going to reject Bennigson's
family claim to the Picasso, it has yet to produce an alternative history
for the painting. "All they have is doubts," he says. "They
don't have any evidence on their side."
Schoenberg says that while the law might favor Alsdorf if she had bought
a mass-produced item that was later discovered to be stolen property --
say a car -- things are different when you're talking about a $10 million
one-of-a-kind Picasso. When buying unique works of art, he says, the prevailing
US law is: caveat emptor. "The law is pretty clear that for recognizable
cultural property like this, you cannot get good title if the painting
has been stolen or looted," he says. In other words, even if the
purchaser buys it in good faith, stolen property can never be legitimately
sold, and must be surrendered to its original owner.
A unique twist to this case is that each attorney sees the other's side
and agrees that no matter which way the courts rule, it doesn't really
undo the initial injustice. After all, the truly culpable person in this
story -- the person who stole the Picasso in the first place -- remains
an anonymous historical figure who likely will never be punished. Schoenberg
says this may be one of those cases where everyone involved loses. "There
are two victims," he says. "The person who owned it, and the
person who bought it in good faith."
It comes as a bit of a surprise
to Bennigson's attorney, whose résumé describes a history
of primarily business and entertainment law, that he has ended up litigating
two of the four most recent high-profile Nazi art theft cases in the United
States. In addition to the Picasso and Klimt cases, there was a 1998 standoff
over Egon Schiele's Portrait of Wally, seized while the painting
was on loan to New York's Museum of Modern Art from an Austrian museum;
a Manhattan district attorney claimed it had been stolen from a Jewish
family during World War II and should be forfeited by the Austrian government.
And this year, actress Elizabeth Taylor has found herself defending against
the claim that a van Gogh in her possession, View of the Asylum of
Saint-Remy, had been looted by the Nazis.
More surprising, Schoenberg says, is how rare such cases are. The sad
truth, he says, is that there are potentially thousands of other Nazi-looted
artworks out there, but because most of them are not worth millions, no
one will expend the time and money to search for them or litigate for
their return. Even the Art Loss Register can't put a number on how many
artworks are still missing, although Jackson says the total value runs
into the billions.
Wartime art looting is by no means unique to World War II -- consider
the thoroughness with which Iraq's museums were raided following the American
assault on Baghdad. But the Nazis' organized program of looting was frighteningly
efficient, headed by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, or ERR, an
agency that collected works for Hitler's personal museum as well as others
throughout the Reich. But it's hard to pinpoint exactly who would have
taken Femme en Blanc off the wall of Thannhauser's Paris home.
There were plenty of possible thieves outside the official looting program:
rank-and-file German soldiers, Vichy collaborators, or neighbors who ratted
each other out to ransack one another's property. "Individual art
works were stolen by soldiers from all sides," Jackson says. "Some
would have been sold quite quickly, and some would have been taken home
as war booty."
The reason Femme en Blanc ended up in the hands of private art
dealers, rather than in a German museum, may have to do with the conservative
artistic tastes of the Reich. Much of the work of modern masters was dismissed
as "degenerate art," not in keeping with the Nazis' cultural
ideals. "They probably wouldn't go for a Picasso," muses Dr.
Enrique Mallen, a Texas A&M University art history professor who founded
the On-Line Picasso Project (TAMU.edu/mocl/picasso). "It would be
too revolutionary to them. What we now consider to be fairly realistic,
for them it would be too wild."
But even if the Reich's museums didn't want modern artworks, the Nazis
knew they were valuable. Instead, Jackson says, "Any works of art
stolen that were not destined for a Nazi collection on the grounds that
they were modern or avant-garde were usually sold in the thriving wartime
art markets, principally in Paris or Amsterdam, or were used for the purposes
of exchange -- for example, five Impressionist pictures swapped for two
old master paintings."
With time, these looted artworks are slowly filtering back to the legitimate
market. But as with Femme en Blanc, their whereabouts in the interim
remain an art-world mystery.
Here's what we do know about Femme en Blanc: The portrait was painted
in 1922 during what's known as Pablo Picasso's "neoclassical"
period, a time when he turned from the fractured, Cubist style he had
developed with Georges Braque to creating somewhat more realistic portrayals.
During the early '20s, Picasso produced multiple canvases and studies
of dark-haired women -- usually his first wife, Russian ballerina Olga
Koklova, or model Sara Murphy -- quietly sitting, reading, or napping.
One of the theories explaining Picasso's return to a more conservative
painting style is that it reflected a brief period of tranquility in the
artist's home life. It corresponded with his marriage to Olga, the birth
of their son Paulo, and a move to an upscale Paris neighborhood where
he was surrounded by wealthy patrons for his work. Olga, Mallen says,
continually pressured her husband to become a more traditional painter
who made portraits of rich people.
Another theory is that it reflected the French national atmosphere of
a return to normalcy at the end of World War I. But in Mallen's view,
Picasso's about-face can also be seen as a personal revolt against the
co-opting of Cubism. "The theory I like best is that he basically
wanted to distance himself from what some people were doing with Cubism,"
the professor says. "They had found a formula and applied it again
and again. ... Picasso never liked to paint by the rules. He just didn't
like for people to follow a code and stick to it. He's been quoted as
saying, 'Never imitate yourself.'"
By returning to more traditional forms, Mallen adds, "he's saying,
'I am Picasso -- I am not among the Cubists. I am doing my own thing and
will come back to it when I feel like it.'"
Close attention to Femme en Blanc reveals that Picasso was still
toying with ideas about vision and perception -- Mallen, who has seen
photos of the painting, cites the woman's unrealistically elongated body
and outsize hands. "He probably took that idea of stretching the
woman vertically from classical painters like El Greco -- it's normally
an indication of spirituality, getting away from daily life. This is one
of the few paintings where we see Picasso idealizing Olga, because that
marriage is going to go downhill very, very quickly."
Indeed, in the tempestuous years that followed, Picasso would soon leave
this style of painting behind. His fame grew, and his love life became
infamous. Although he was Spanish by birth and spent much of his adult
life in France, his work was firmly embraced in Germany. He found such
a receptive audience in German art buyers that, in a strange way, the
fate of many of his works became bound up in the fate of the country.
As much as Picasso's more avant-garde works would have repelled the Nazi
leadership, his early work was very popular among ordinary German art
collectors. "I think it was because he was so structured in his compositions,"
Mallen muses. "Picasso was interested in line work, and I think that
goes with the rational character of the German culture." The first
monograph on Picasso's work was written in German, some of his very first
buyers were wealthy Germans, and he established lifelong relationships
with German art dealers Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Paul Rosenberg.
Another German art dealer pops up again and again in Picasso's history
-- Justin K. Thannhauser, to whom Bennigson's grandmother would later
send Femme en Blanc for safekeeping. He is perhaps best known today
as the man who gave the Guggenheim his massive personal collection of
works by Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Renoir, and van Gogh, but in
the early 20th century his main claim to fame was the gallery his family
owned in Munich.
Thannhauser was one of Picasso's earliest supporters. Picasso had exhibited
in Thannhauser's gallery as early as 1910, and a relationship between
them must have been solidly established in 1914, when Thannhauser created
a frisson in the art world by paying 11,000 francs for Picasso's Family
of Saltimbanques -- making it, at the time, the most expensive painting
ever sold. "A lot of people were saying they couldn't believe he
had paid so much for that painting and he was quoted as saying, 'I would
have paid twice as much,'" Mallen says.
During the first World War, Picasso's popularity amongst German buyers
even made him suspect to the French citizenry. He was accused of being
"pro-German," and the Germans who bought his paintings were
suspected of trying to drive up the price of his work by paying extraordinary
sums, the professor points out.
Bennigson says his grandparents weren't extensive art collectors, but
they were relatively well-to-do and considered themselves cultured. He
doesn't doubt that they would have owned a few works by contemporary artists.
According to Schoenberg, Femme en Blanc was initially sold by Picasso's
dealer Kahnweiler to an art gallery that in turn sold it to the Landsbergs
in 1926 or 1927. Carlota Landsberg owned it for about a dozen years before
sending it to Thannhauser. Then it went missing.
After that things get murky. Nobody can say where the painting was for
the next thirty years, whether it was secretly hidden in a soldier's basement,
covertly displayed by someone who had bought it on the black market, or
hung proudly on the wall of an unwitting buyer who didn't realize he possessed
According to Mallen, the Picasso On-Line Project archives show that the
painting finally surfaced at French gallery Renou et Poyet, which sold
it to Stephen Hahn, the dealer who sold it to the Alsdorfs in 1975. Hahn
did not return calls for this article.
Should art dealers and buyers in the 1970s, like Hahn and the Alsdorfs,
have more closely scrutinized their purchases' histories? Jackson of the
Art Loss Register says background checks weren't routine until the last
decade. Before that, they were used only to confirm authenticity or when
an object was of particular historical interest. Still, Mallen suggests
that by then, art dealers should have known to be cautious about works
of uncertain provenance coming out of Germany or Austria. In particular,
he says, Renou et Poyet was known to deal largely with work from Germany,
and even directly from the collection of Paul Rosenberg, one of Picasso's
"There's all kinds of flags being raised there," Mallen says.
A collector might not have known what to ask for, but, he says, "A
dealer should have known. If I had found that out I wouldn't have bought
He pauses. "Maybe it was just: 'Don't ask too many questions you
don't want answers to. '"
The fight over Femme en
Blanc has grown more pressing as the sales value of Picasso's work
continues to climb. This year, a Picasso portrait again shattered revenue
records when Garçon à la Pipe (Boy with a Pipe) sold
for $104 million.
On the jurisdiction issue, Schoenberg expects the California Supreme Court
to be more open to his arguments than the lower courts were, especially
given his recent victory in the Klimt case. "It's odd that the US
Supreme Court has said we can sue a foreign country for paintings that
are in that foreign country, but for some reason the California Court
of Appeal said we can't sue a woman in Chicago to recover a painting that
was in California at the time we filed the suit," he says.
The two years spent getting the case this far haven't done much to soothe
anyone's feelings. Bennigson, who graduated from Boalt this spring, says
he now hopes to recover not only the painting but also punitive damages
for what he considers Alsdorf's attempt to evade California's jurisdiction.
This has become much more of a personal fight for him. "Clearly whatever
happens in this case is not going to change anything that happened to
my grandmother, or other parts of my family where much worse things happened,"
he says. "Alsdorf is not the perpetrator of Nazi crimes. On the other
hand, she is somebody who is benefiting from them, which you would think
that a person of conscience would have some unease with."
Chapman cautions that the case should be viewed separately from the shame
and horror evoked by the Holocaust, for which his client obviously cannot
be held accountable. "If anyone tries to take the emotion of the
Holocaust as a way to resolve [the suit]," he says, "it trivializes
the event and just makes it a talking point to support a business transaction."
It is, after all, a lawsuit about a luxury item. "We're fighting
about property," the lawyer continues. "It's not about life
and death or about if someone's going to be going to jail or not."
Schoenberg, however, feels that some retroactive justice is on the line.
"Stealing paintings was relatively low on the totem pole in terms
of Nazi atrocities," he concedes, "but when it comes to what
we can do about it sixty years later, returning those paintings is about
the only thing left where we can right some of those lingering wrongs."
A victory for Bennigson could set a strong precedent for allowing the
families of Holocaust victims to sue to recover their heirlooms, even
when that art reappears on the other side of the globe after having changed
hands countless times, and when the current owners have no idea they possess
stolen property. Who, after all, can say how many other cultural treasures
disappeared along with Femme en Blanc? To whom did they once belong,
who took them, and where have they been hiding?
If anyone knows, it's the Lady in White. But she remains as quiet as oil