NEW YORK—A California judge has ruled that two families may proceed with their lawsuit against art dealer Stephen Hahn to recover the profits Hahn is alleged to have earned on sales, some 30 years ago, of works by Pablo Picasso and Camille Pissarro that had been looted during World War II. This is believed to be the first case in the U.S. in which the heirs of Nazi victims have sought compensation from an intermediary.
Claude Cassirer and Thomas C. Bennigson had filed the joint complaint in Santa Barbara, Calif., against Hahn, former president of the Art Dealers Association of America, on July 19. They claimed that Hahn had sold the two paintings without the consent of the legal owners and therefore must hold the profits for them. All three men live in California.
On Jan. 20 Superior Court Judge Denise deBellefeuille denied a motion by Hahn’s attorney Jeremy Epstein, of Shearman and Sterling, New York, to dismiss the case. Epstein declined to comment on the ruling. He had argued, however, that New York law should apply because Hahn was an art dealer in New York in the 1970s, when the transactions occurred. Under New York law the statute of limitations has expired.
The judge ruled that California law—under which the statute of limitations runs three years from the discovery of the location of the paintings—could apply. Picasso’s 1922 Femme en blanc was discovered in 2002; Pissarro’s 1897 Rue de Saint Honoré après midi, effet de pluie was found “in the last few years,” according to the judge, who deemed the timing of the discoveries sufficient to let the case go forward. It is expected to proceed to pretrial discovery.
The judge’s ruling has raised the prospect of other victim claims against the so-called “downstream” buyers and intermediaries, such as auction houses, which may have been involved in transfers and sales of Nazi-era looted art.
Said Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, who represents Cassirer and Bennigson: “It is potentially a far-reaching opinion and one, I suspect, that will be quite alarming to the dealer community, who, I guess, suppose that if they sell works that are stolen—in this case, looted by the Nazis—that after a certain period of time they are home-free. That is not the case.”
The Picasso was looted by the Nazis in 1940 from Paris art dealer Justin K. Thannhauser, to whom it had been sent for safekeeping by Bennigson’s grandmother Carlota Landsberg, of Berlin. Dealer Hahn imported the painting from France in 1975 and sold it a year later to James and Marilyn Alsdorf of Chicago for $357,000, the complaint states. Bennigson located the Picasso, now worth some $10 million, in 2002, when Marilyn Alsdorf prepared to sell the painting, and the Art Loss Register identified it as stolen. Bennigson has filed a separate claim against Marilyn Alsdorf.
Cassirer’s grandmother Lilly Cassirer-Neubauer, of Munich, was forced to sell the Pissarro to a Nazi agent in 1939 for a nominal amount before she fled from Germany. Hahn subsequently acquired the painting and, circa 1976, sold it to Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, who later transferred it over to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation in Madrid.