NEW YORK—The London-based Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation has settled a restitution claim over a Pablo Picasso painting worth as much as $60million. The claim was brought against the foundation more than three years ago by the heirs of a German Jewish banker who allegedly sold the work under duress during the Nazi era. News of the settlement came as a surprise to some observers, since a New York appeals court upheld a ruling dismissing the lawsuit on technical grounds last August. The heirs have now relinquished their claim to the painting, according to statements issued by both sides.
The dispute centered on Picasso’s painting Portrait de Angel Fernández de Soto (The Absinthe Drinker), 1903, a Blue Period work that had once been owned by Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, the Jewish banker. Von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy placed the work, along with four other Picassos he owned, on consignment with Berlin dealer Justin K. Thannhauser “in or around October 1934,” according to court documents.
The painting changed hands several times after that, and was eventually put up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York in 1995. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber bought the work there for $29.15million against a $10million estimate, and transferred it to his charitable foundation. In 2006, the foundation consigned the work to Christie’s in New York, where it was included in the catalogue for its November evening sale of Impressionist and modern art and given an estimate of $40million/60million.
On Nov. 3 of that year, Julius Schoeps, whose grandmother was a sister of von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, filed a claim in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. On Nov. 7, the day before the sale, the claim was dismissed for “lack of federal jurisdiction,” according to court documents.
Even though the court refused to bar the painting’s sale, the Lloyd Webber foundation voluntarily pulled it from the Christie’s auction, and it was returned to London on Nov. 8, according to court documents.
Schoeps pursued his claim to the painting through the New York Supreme Court, but his claim was dismissed in November 2007 because, the court ruled, under New York law any rights to the painting had been transferred to von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s estate upon his death, and Schoeps had not been legally appointed as the personal representative of the estate. Schoeps appealed, and in August of last year, an appellate court upheld the earlier ruling that Schoeps lacked standing to file a claim on behalf of the estate. Schoeps’s attorney John J. Byrne Jr., of the Washington, D.C., firm Byrne Goldenberg & Hamilton, told ARTnewsletter, “We still could have brought suit in New York and just had Schoeps qualified as the personal representative as the appellate decision dictated.”
Instead, the parties reached a settlement, the terms of which are confidential, according to statements from representatives of both parties. A spokesperson for the Lloyd Webber foundation sent an e-mail statement in response to a request for comment from ARTnewsletter, saying that the trustees of the foundation “are pleased to announce that Professor Julius Schoeps and all other heirs of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy … have settled and relinquished any and all claims of title in the Foundation’s painting The Absinthe Drinker.”
Widely Divergent Views
The New York court’s ruling stands in marked contrast to the decision in a related case in the U.S. District Court, which was settled early last year. In that case the von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy heirs filed claims for two other Picasso paintings in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The judge in that case, Jed S. Rakoff, issued an order denying the museums’ motion for summary judgement in their favor. Rakoff ruled that Schoeps did not have to be appointed the personal representative of the estate because German law, not New York law, applied to the transfer of the rights to the paintings. Any claim, he ruled, therefore passed directly to von Medelssohn-Bartholdy’s heirs, not to his estate.
The claim against the two museums centers on Boy Leading a Horse, 1905–6, which MoMA acquired as a lifetime gift from former CBS executive William Paley in 1964 (full ownership passed to the museum upon Paley’s death, in 1990), and Le Moulin de la Galette, 1900, which was bequeathed to the Guggenheim in 1963 as part of a larger gift from Thannhauser. According to court documents, the two paintings were consigned to Thannhauser at the same time as The Absinthe Drinker.
Secret Settlement Draws Judge’s Ire
On Feb. 2, the morning the case was set to go to trial, and after more than a year of litigation, Schoeps and the museums announced a confidential settlement under which the paintings would remain with the museums in exchange for an undisclosed sum, according to court documents.
In an unusual move, Rakoff approved the settlement but blasted both parties for the confidential nature of the settlement, calling it “a troubling reversal of the parties’ previously stated positions on this issue.”
“It was only after being pressed by the Court that the Museums retreated from their position of seeking confidentiality,” Rakoff wrote in a memorandum order. “Plaintiffs, however, for reasons wholly unexplained and seemingly no more compelling than concealing the amount of money going into their pockets, remain opposed.”