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The descendants of a Jewish art collector sued the Guggenheim collection this week over a Picasso painting. The Adler family heirs seek the return of Picasso’s Woman Ironing, along with compensation.
The Adler/Jacobi family fled Germany in 1938 as the Nazi party rose to power. Like many Jewish families, they were forced to sell their art at a loss in order to escape religious persecution.
The descendants state the Picasso painting is worth over $200 million today. Several prominent Jewish charities support the lawsuit against the Guggenheim.
This is not the first time descendants of Jewish art collectors have sought recompense for their suffering. In fact, the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (Hear) Act of 2016 allows claimants in Nazi loot cases to seek recovery of works within six years of becoming aware that they have a claim.
The Adlers’ great-great grandson, states his family “was forced to sell the painting for well below its actual value. Adler would not have disposed of the painting at the time and price that he did, but for the Nazi persecution to which he and his family had been, and would continue to be, subjected.”
The fight for Jewish art repatriation echoes today’s cries for reparations for descendants of enslaved people. While Germany provides reparations, the United States still has not offered financial recompense to descendants of enslaved people.
According to the Brookings Policy Institute, “In 1861, the value placed on cotton produced by enslaved Blacks was $250 million. Slavery enriched white slave owners and their descendants, and it fueled the country’s economy while suppressing wealth building for the enslaved.”
Meanwhile, the racial wealth gap between White and Black families only continues to grow. While art repatriation for Jewish citizens is common, Black communities are still waiting for their justice.
In Germany in the 1930s, Jewish emigrants endured the “flight tax,” which taxed their assets. Thus many families sold all their worldly possessions, including art.
The Adlers sold Woman Ironing for a measly $1500 to Justin Thannhauser, a German collector who became known for buying art from fleeing Jewish families. He often loaned or sold the art to major collections around the world, while not always crediting the original owners.
Museums across the United States have tread lightly on displaying art from Nazi-era Europe. In New York, laws require museums to display information on pieces that “changed hands due to theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale or other involuntary means” as a result of Nazi persecution.
Other museums have settled with the original owners after litigation by one or both parties. The Guggenheim, for its part, stated it “has conducted expansive research and a detailed inquiry in response to this claim, engaged in dialogue with claimants’ counsel over the course of several years, and believes the claim to be without merit.”