In the summer of 2002, a UC Berkeley law student received an oddly cagey phone call. Was he Tom Bennigson? the caller asked.
And did he have a grandmother named Carlota Landsberg?
In that case, the caller had located a painting originally belonging to his grandmother that was potentially of some value.
Bennigson knew that in 1938, his grandmother and his mother Edith, then a teenager, had fled Berlin to escape the Nazis. They'd been members of a fairly well-off Jewish family connected to the banking industry. Aided by friends and strangers who sheltered them, the two women began a yearlong journey that took them through Switzerland, France, Spain, and Argentina before they finally settled in New York City. There, Edith got married and gave birth to Tom. Both of Bennigson's parents died when he was young, and he says his grandmother, who passed away in 1994, made little mention of her flight from her home country, or of what she had left behind.
And now this caller was telling him his grandmother had owned a valuable painting, although the title and artist could not be revealed just yet. Bennigson smelled a rat. "I was kind of waiting for them to say, "Send us a check for $10,000 and we'll do everything we can to recover this painting for you,'" he recalls.
But it was no scam: The call was from the Art Loss Register, an international agency that seeks to recover stolen works. Collectors considering a major buy can consult the register to see whether their intended purchase has a clean history. If it doesn't, the agency works to track the original owners (or their heirs) and negotiate a settlement. In this case, a potential buyer had approached the register to double-check the provenance of a 1922 Pablo Picasso oil painting titled Femme en Blanc (Lady in White). Current asking price: $10 million-plus.
The register's investigation turned up a tumultuous history indeed: Bennigson's grandmother, the agency determined, had indeed owned Femme en Blanc, a portrait of a dark-haired woman sedately holding a book. Before leaving Berlin, Carlota Landsberg had entrusted care of the painting to Justin K. Thannhauser, a renowned art dealer who had been one of Picasso's earliest champions. The dealer also was a German Jew. He had moved to Paris thinking it would be safer, but in 1939, with the writing on the wall, Thannhauser departed for the United States, leaving much of his prodigious art collection behind. The following year, during the Nazi occupation of France, his home was looted and the Picasso was among the works taken.
In a 1958 letter to Landsberg, Thannhauser confirmed that the painting had been in his home, and described the ransacking of his house as witnessed by the domestic servants who remained. "During the four-day-long violent German National Socialist plundering, everything was taken out of the four-story house during the night and placed in trucks," he wrote. "I have often tried to find a trace of this oil painting, as well as all the other property that disappeared at the time, but until now without success."
Carlota Landsberg also spent many fruitless years trying to retrieve her painting. In 1969, she even signed a settlement with the German government acknowledging its theft, and was paid 100,000 deutsche marks, or about $27,000. The settlement did not release her claim on the painting -- the money was to be repaid and the portrait returned to her if it were ever found.
Decades went by, and the painting remained lost. Bennigson, the only child of Landsberg's only child, became its sole heir, although he didn't know it existed. Bennigson, a mildly scruffy guy with a distinct unease about discussing large amounts of money, spent most of his adult life studying and teaching philosophy, and then moved to Oakland to enroll at UC Berkeley's Boalt School of Law, intending to become a public-interest lawyer. Then, out of the blue, came the call saying that a valuable Picasso was his to claim.
There was only one problem: It belonged to someone else, someone who lived far away and had no intention of giving it up. Thus began one of the highest-stakes art lawsuits currently on US dockets.
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