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Boy Leading a Horse, Picasso, 1905-06/Museum of Modern Art

Boy Leading a Horse, Picasso, 1905-06/Museum of Modern Art

It may have been possible for Picasso’s boy to lead that horse without a rein, but it appears that the Museum of Modern Art didn’t have the famous painting on as tight a leash as you might have thought. For more than a year that 1906 picture, one of the high points of MoMA’s collection, has been the focus of a Holocaust restitution fight that also involved another Picasso, Le Moulin de la Galette, this one hanging at the Guggenheim.

Le Moulin de la Galette, Picasso, 1900/Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Le Moulin de la Galette, Picasso, 1900/Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Yesterday both museums settled out of court with three plaintiffs seeking return of the paintings, which they claim had been relinquished under duress by their Jewish owner in the 1930s.

One of those plaintiffs was Julius Schoeps, a German citizen and a professor at Potsdam University. Schoeps’ grandmother was a sister of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a German-Jewish banker who was owner of both paintings. At some point von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy transferred ownership of the paintings to his wife Elsa. The question appears to be just when. In December 2007, even before their ownership of the paintings could be challenged, MOMA and the Guggenheim issued a joint asserting their rightful ownership of both canvases and announcing that they had filed papers in federal district court in New York asking for a declaration confirming that ownership.

In that statement the two museums said that von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy transferred the pictures to his wife in 1927. If that was true, it could not have been a transfer made in response to the threat to Jews posed by the Nazis. In 1927 Hitler still headed a small though very sinister German fringe party. But as Bloomberg News is reporting, the plaintiffs claim that the transfer was actually made as von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy neared death in 1935. By that time Hitler was Fuhrer, Germans Jews were subject to endless attacks and the Nuremberg Laws were on their way. Under German law Elsa qualified as an Aryan who could offer the pictures some protection from Nazi seizures of Jewish property.

So the case, had it gone to trial, would almost certainly have hinged upon the question of just when did von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy really transfer those pictures to his wife. The museums say it was 1927, when he gave them to Elsa as a wedding gift. The plaintiffs say the 1927 transfer was a pretext conceived by von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy in 1935, which would allow for a presumption that the sales were made under duress.

Over at the website of the Nazi Era Provenance Information Project, you can download a pdf. with information provided to the project by the Guggenheim concerning the ownership chain of Le Moulin de la Galette. It includes this interesting footnote that sheds light on the heart of the disagreement:

Although the picture was purchased during the time of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s first marriage…[he] retained ownership of the painting following their divorce. According to a Contract of Inheritance executed in February 1935, which was confirmed in a Protocol executed in May of 1935, von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy had gifted his entire art collection, which included this painting, to his second wife Elsa….on the occasion of their marriage in September, 1927.

At least in the case of the Guggenheim picture, if the only documentary evidence that it was gifted in 1927 is a declaration made by von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy eight years later, then at the very least there might be a question here. Because the case never went to trial, we may never know whether the two museums could provide other evidence — letters, diaries, family recollections — that the paintings had been given to Elsa.

What we know for sure is that both paintings ended up with Galerie Thannhauser, and that by 1936 Boy Leading a Horse was in the collection of Bill Paley, the president of CBS, who gave it to MoMA in 1964. The dealer Justin K. Thannhauser, who fled from the Nazis to Paris in the late 1930s and then to New York in 1940, hung on to Le Moulin de la Galette, which he gave to the Guggenheim in 1963 as part of the bequest that became the basis of its great Thannhauser collection.

As with most settlements the details of this one are sealed, so we may never know whether or how much money changed hands. And by itself the mere fact that the two museums chose to settle doesn’t mean they didn’t have faith in their own arguments. (Or, for that matter, that the plaintiffs didn’t have faith in their’s.) But jury trials are a crapshoot and for the museums at least, the paintings were too important to lose.

Both museums maintain web pages about their research into the provenance of works whose chain of ownership might be subject to questions connected to Nazi-era sales. The very easy-to-use MoMA page provides information on individual works. Their provenance page on Boy Leading a Horse is somewhat ambiguous about the painting’s ownership trail after it left the collection of Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, sometime before 1913. After that they conjecture that it passed to the Galerie Simon in Paris. They date its appearance in the collection of von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy this way:

Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Berlin. Acquired ? [by 1934] – 1935

Over at the Guggenheim website they provide general information about their provenance research project but no data on individual works. However, as mentioned, they’ve provided that information for Le Moulin de la Galette to the Nazi Era Provenance Information Project.

The pertinent part of the time line as provided by the Guggenheim:

* From the artist to Galerie Berthe Weill, Paris, by 1900;
* Purchased by Arthur Huc, from Weill, ca. 1900;
* Modern Galerie (Heinrich Thannhauser, proprietor), Munich, ca. 1909;
* Purchased by Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Berlin, from Moderne Galerie, ca. 1910;
* By marriage, Elsa von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (later Countess Kesselstatt), Berlin, September 1927;
* On consignment to Galleries Thannhauser (Justin K. Thannhauser, proprietor, Berlin and Lucerne, after July 1934;
* Purchased by Galleries Thannhauser, Berlin and Lucerne, from von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, by August 31, 1935;