Thomas Bennigson, Adler and Jacobi’s great-grandson, avers in the suit that Adler, who ran a profitable leather manufacturing business, purchased the work in 1916 from Munich gallery owner Heinrich Thannhauser but was forced to sell the painting to the dealer’s son Justin Thannhauser in 1938 for about one-ninth of its value as the businessman and his family prepared to leave Nazi Germany. Bennigson contends that Adler was under extreme pressure to let the painting go for a pittance thanks to the 1935 enactment of the racist and anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws, and to Germany’s “flight tax,” which stripped emigrants of their assets.
The Adler family fled to Buenos Aires by ship in 1940, by which time Thannhauser had already loaned the canvas to Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. He later loaned it to New York’s Museum of Modern Art and in 1963 promised the painting to the Guggenheim upon his death. The work has been held in the Guggenheim’s collection since 1978.
Adler and Jacobi’s descendants first learned of the work’s provenance in 2014 and in 2017 reached out to the Guggenheim through their lawyers. In 2021, they demanded its return under the rules of the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act passed by Congress in 2016.
The Guggenheim has said the suit is “without merit,” contending that it contacted Eric Adler—Rosi and Adler’s son, then living in New York—about the canvas in the 1970s and that neither he nor any other family members expressed concern regarding the museum’s ownership of it. Noting that “the Guggenheim takes provenance matters and restitution claims extremely seriously,” museum spokesperson Sara Fox asserted in a statement, “It is unclear on what basis claimants—more than 80 years after Adler’s sale of Woman Ironing—appear to have come to a view as to the fairness of the transaction that neither Karl Adler nor his immediate descendants appear to have ever expressed, even when the Guggenheim contacted the family directly to ask.” Continued Fox, “The facts demonstrate that Karl Adler’s sale of the painting to Justin Thannhauser was a fair transaction between parties with a longstanding and continuing relationship.”
The Guggenheim in 2007 petitioned to be declared the legal owner of Picasso’s Le Moulin de la Galette (The Windmill at Galette), 1900, which Justin Thannhauser donated to the institution in 1963. The museum entered its plea after Julius H. Schoeps, a great-nephew of the painting’s original owner, German Jewish banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, demanded the return of the painting on the grounds that Mendelssohn-Bartholdy had sold otto Thannhauser under duress. The suit was settled in 2009 and the Guggenheim was ultimately allowed to keep the work.
New York State last year passed a law requiring museums to publicly disclose whether a displayed work had passed through Nazi hands.