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$6.5 million settlement reached over Picasso looted by Nazis

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Aug. 10--CHICAGO -- A Chicago art collector has agreed to pay $6.5 million to settle a claim that a Picasso oil painting she bought in 1975 was looted by the Nazis.

Marilynn Alsdorf, who acquired Picasso's "Femme en blanc" ("Woman in White") from New York art dealer Stephen Hahn for $357,000, will pay the sum to Californian Thomas Bennigson, whose grandmother owned the painting before it was confiscated during the Holocaust.

Though Alsdorf has fought Bennigson's claim since 2002, when he sued for $10 million in California state court, she agreed to settle after attorneys for both parties met June 13 in Los Angeles before Magistrate Judge Margaret Nagle of U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

"I think she has very personal reasons for doing it," said Alsdorf's attorney, Richard Chapman, adding that Alsdorf would not comment on the case.

Alsdorf is "maintaining that the painting had been purchased in good faith with proper legal title," according to a statement released by the Chicago law firm representing her, FagelHaber LLC, but she "agreed to the settlement citing her advanced age and the need to resolve financial claims so her commitments to family and charitable organizations may be completed." Alsdorf is 80.

But Bennigson's attorney disputes Alsdorf's contention that she owned the painting legally.

"I think it's very clear that she didn't get good title, and that's why we had a lawsuit," said E. Randol Schoenberg of the Los Angeles firm Burris & Schoenberg LLP.

"It was clear that Mrs. Alsdorf had no (legal) defense, that this painting had been stolen during the Nazi era."

Added Howard Spiegler, an expert on restitution law who serves as co-chairman of the international art department at the New York law firm Herrick, Feinstein LLP, "In general, under American law, one does not get good title to stolen property, even if you are a good-faith purchaser.

"Mrs. Alsdorf could have been a good-faith purchaser and still might not have had good title to the property -- those are not inconsistent positions."

In October, FBI agents served Alsdorf with a seizure warrant and a federal restraining order, allowing the Picasso to remain in her possession but under protection of the court. The action was taken after the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles filed a complaint in U.S. District Court, charging that Alsdorf had transported the work across state lines "with knowledge that it was stolen, converted or taken by fraud."

The battle over the painting began in 2001, when Alsdorf, through a California art dealer, sent the Picasso to a prospective buyer in France. But the Parisian art dealer checked the provenance of the work with the Art Loss Register, a London-based clearinghouse for stolen art.

The Art Loss Register determined that the painting had been listed in an extensive 1947 text detailing Nazi-plundered art. In addition, in 1969 the German government acknowledged the theft, paying Bennigson's grandmother 100,000 deutsch marks (about $27,300) in restitution, though that payment had no bearing on the recent litigation.

Alsdorf had begun negotiating with Bennigson's representatives in 2002 but ended discussions on Dec. 18, 2002, the same date Bennigson filed suit against her.

Since then the two sides have been arguing in courts in Chicago and Los Angeles over jurisdiction of the case, not yet its substance.

But court documents detail the path of the painting before, during and after World War II.

Picasso painted "Femme en blanc," a work from his "classic" period, in 1922. Robert and Carlota Landsberg, Jews living in Berlin, purchased it in 1926 or 1927.

But shortly after Kristallnacht, when Nazis and their sympathizers burned synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes in Germany and Austria, in November 1938, the widowed Carlota Landsberg decided to flee with her daughter. She sent the Picasso to French art dealer Justin Thannhauser, who stored it in his Paris home, which was looted by the Nazis.

Thannhauser later wrote to Landsberg, "As I remember very clearly, and as I therefore can confirm to you in writing, in 1938 or 1939 you sent your Painting by Picasso, of a woman, from the so-called classical period of the artist, to me in my house in Paris. At this time, as we were forced to leave our home in Paris in 1939, your Picasso hung in the middle of a small wall. Upon the occupation of Paris in 1940, when we were no longer in Paris and the house was closed, the entire contents of the four-story building -- and with it your Painting -- were stolen."

After fleeing across Europe, Landsberg arrived in New York in 1940 or 1941 and married Rudolph Bennigson, also a Holocaust survivor, and they had one son: Thomas Bennigson.

Until her death in 1994, Landsberg searched for the painting, unsuccessfully.

Its turbulent past did not resurface until the Art Loss Register began investigating it.

Alsdorf will make payment after the California court enters a consent judgment, expected in November.


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