The heirs of Karl Adler and Rosi Jacobi want the artist’s 1904 masterpiece ‘Woman Ironing’ repatriated, which they claim the couple sold under duress as they tried to escaping persecution by the Nazis in their native Germany in 1938.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in Manhattan Supreme Court, says Adler acquired the artwork in 1916 from Munich gallerist Heinrich Thannhauser, but sold it well below value to Thannhauser’s son, Justin. , in 1938 for about $1,552. The lawsuit claims a desperate Adler suffered a substantial loss due to his family’s situation.
“Adler would not have disposed of the painting at the time and for the price he did, but for the Nazi persecution to which he and his family had been and would continue to be subjected,” the complaint states.
In the lawsuit, relatives say Adler was chairman of the board of Europe’s largest leather manufacturer, but things changed when the “Nazi regime in Germany shattered their lives.”
In 1938, the family fled Germany, traveling through the Netherlands, France and Switzerland before settling permanently in Argentina, the lawsuit says.
The Guggenheim Museum said it believed the lawsuit was “without merit”. Credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters
“The Adlers needed large sums of money just to get short-term visas while in exile in Europe. Unable to work, on the run, and not knowing what the future held, the Adlers had to liquidate what they could to quickly raise as much money as possible,” the lawsuit states.
The heirs allege that Thannhauser “profited” from the misfortune of German Jews. They also allege that “Thannhauser was well aware of the plight of Adler and his family, and that, but for Nazi persecution, Adler would never have sold the painting when he did so for such a price”, according to the trial.
Rosi Adler died in 1946 in Buenos Aires aged 68, while her husband Karl died aged 85 in 1957 while visiting his native country.
“Woman Ironing” remained in Thannhauser’s art collection until her death in 1976. It was donated, along with the rest of her works, to the Guggenheim in 1978.
Adler’s descendants, along with a number of nonprofit and Jewish organizations named as plaintiffs in the class action, allege in the lawsuit that the painting is in the “unlawful possession” of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
The family is seeking the painting’s return or compensation commensurate with its estimated current market value of between $100 million and $200 million, according to the lawsuit.
The Guggenheim Museum told CNN in a statement that it takes “provenance issues and restitution claims extremely seriously,” but believes the lawsuit is “without merit.”
“The sale of the painting by Karl Adler to Justin Thannhauser was a fair transaction between parties with a long and ongoing relationship,” the museum said.
He added: “Extensive research conducted by the Guggenheim since it was first contacted by an attorney representing these claimants demonstrates that the Guggenheim is the rightful owner of the painting.”