U.S. Seizes $10 Million Picasso Painting Stolen During World War II

October 28, 2004

A Pablo Picasso painting called “Femme en Blanc” was reportedly seized late last week in a Chicago residence by Agents from Los Angeles in accordance with a complaint for forfeiture filed on Oct. 6 in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

The complaint and an arrest warrant issued on the same day authorized the United States to take custody of the painting, documented as having been stolen by Nazi troops during the French occupation in World War II, on the grounds that it had been unlawfully shipped interstate by a Chicago resident. The government learned this week that the complaint was unsealed on Oct. 22, 2004.

The painting, “Femme en Blanc” or “Woman in White,” and also known as “Femme Assise” or “Seated Woman,” was created by Picasso circa 1922. The complaint details an investigation conducted by the Art Loss Register in London that documented the painting’s history. The painting’s first owner, Carlota Landsberg, bought the painting in 1926 or 1927 from an art dealer in Berlin who had purchased it from Picasso. In approximately 1938 or 1939, Landsberg sent the painting to Paris art dealer J.K. Thannhauser for safekeeping during the war. Thannhauser later fled Paris to escape persecution during the German occupation of France. In 1940, the contents of his Paris home, including the painting, were looted by the Nazis.

The Art Loss Register’s investigation showed that Thannhauser immigrated to the United States and resided in New York. In 1958, Thannhauser sent a letter to Landsberg describing the theft of the painting and donated most of his art collection to the Guggenheim Museum before his death in 1976.

Despite attempts, the painting was never located by Thannhauser, Landsberg or by the French and German governments. Restitution claims researched by the Art Loss Register revealed that the German government had recognized Mrs. Landdsberg’s claim for loss of the painting and agreed to preserve her right to recover the painting if it were ever to be found. Landsberg eventually relocated to New York and died in 1994. Landsberg’s sole heir, Thomas Bennigson, resides in the Bay Area.

According to the complaint, documents reveal the painting was next known to be in the possession of Maurice Covo, owner and manager of Galerie Renou & Poyet in Paris in 1975. Covo said he had received the painting from a collector who had obtained it from a dealer who was investigated by a postwar tribunal on charges of benefiting from sales to the Nazis. Covo sold the painting in 1975 to a Paris art gallery for 630,000 French francs. The Paris gallery then sold the painting to Chicago residents, Marilynn Alsdorf and her husband James (now deceased).

The painting was not publicly displayed and its whereabouts have generally remained unknown until the fall of 2001, when the painting was reportedly shown at a small exhibition held at an art gallery in Los Angeles. Shortly after the exhibit, the Los Angeles gallery reportedly attempted to sell the painting on behalf of Mrs. Alsdorf. The painting was then shipped to Geneva, Switzerland, to be viewed by a Paris art dealer acting as an advisor to an unidentified European collector.

As part of due diligence, the dealer contacted the Art Loss Register in London, England, which serves as a clearinghouse of historical information concerning Nazi-looted paintings and assists in negotiating the resolution of disputes concerning the ownership of art.

The Art Loss Register investigated the provenance of the painting in European archives and discovered the painting’s extensive documented history in Europe and the U.S. as having been stolen by the Nazis. The Art Loss Register notified all parties with an interest in the painting of their findings, to include Mrs. Alsdorf in Chicago, Thomas Bennigson in California and their respective attorneys.

In December 2002, according to the complaint, Mrs. Alsdorf attempted to transport the painting from the gallery in Los Angeles to her designated warehouse in Chicago. Before Bennigson discovered the painting was on its way to Chicago, he filed an action against Mrs Alsdorf in Los Angeles Superior Court to recover the painting, claiming it had been taken from him unlawfully. A temporary restraining order hearing was scheduled for Dec. 20, 2002 in Los Angeles. On that date, before the scheduled hearing time, the painting was transported from Los Angeles to Chicago at the request of Mrs. Alsdorf. The painting was, therefore, then subject to forfeiture to the United States as property traceable to unlawful activity in that it was transported in interstate commerce with knowledge that it was stolen.

FBI Agents and U.S. Marshals from Los Angeles seized the painting on Oct. 21 at the Alsdorf residence in Chicago where it will remain pending a civil forfeiture proceeding. All interested parties will be granted an appearance to show cause why forfeiture should not be decreed.

The investigation and research of the painting was conducted by the Art Loss Register in London, England, and the FBI. The seizure of the painting was carried out by the FBI and the United States Marshals Service in Los Angeles. The government’s forfeiture proceedings will be prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.

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