ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Family Sues the Guggenheim to Recover Picasso Sold Under Duress in 1938

It is a familiar tale, but each has its own wrinkles.  The basics, provided by Toyin Owoseje on, are that a wealthy German Jewish family either is forced to sell its artworks as they flee persecution (or simply have their property stolen by the Nazi government or by individual party members) or they sell the art for a pittance because they are in desperate need of funds so that they can use the money to secure passage out of Germany.  The Adler family's story falls into the second category.

PicassoThey owned a powerful painting by Pablo Picasso (left) from his blue period, Woman Ironing.  In 1938, needing money to secure short-term visas so that the family could escape to Western Europe, the Adlers sold the painting for about $1500 to the Thannhauser family.   Estimates of the current value of the painting range from $100 million to $250 million.

The Adlers have now passed away, and the Thannhauser family gifted the painting to the Guggenheim Museum in the 1970s.  The family now seeks the return of the painting, alleging that the 1938 sale was induced by duress, and I suppose nemo dat quod non habet -- the Thannhausers had no authority to give away something they did not rightfully own.

The Guggenheim states that it takes matters of provenance very seriously but that all of the evidence indicates that the Thannhauser family had frequent dealings with the Adlers, and that this was a lawful sale between parties who knew each other well.  I don't know what a Picasso went for in 1938, so I cannot judge.  But in any case, I do wonder how the duress argument works.  It cannot be that every time a party takes advantage of another party's economic woes -- woes for which it bears no responsibility -- the contract can be undone under the doctrine of duress.  I will be very interested to see the briefs on that issue should the case proceed to that stage.

Sid DeLong is my go-to guy on duress.  Sid, do you care to weigh in?

Hat Tip to Timothy Murray

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