Lloyd Webber charity fights for right to sell 33m Picasso portrait

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The Independent Online

A Picasso portrait worth an estimated 33m is the subject of an intense legal battle between Andrew Lloyd Webber's art foundation and a German-Jewish professor who claims it was looted from his family by the Nazis in the 1930s.

The London-based charity has begun proceedings at the High Court to prove once and for all that it owns The Absinthe Drinker a study of an effete young man with a glass of the spirit.

The action comes more than a year after the 1903 portrait of Picasso's close friend, Angel Fernández de Soto, was suddenly withdrawn from auction at Christie's New York when Professor Julius Schoeps, a German academic, claimed the Nazis forced his Jewish great-uncle to sell it.

Professor Schoeps, the director of the Moses Mendelssohn Centre for European Jewish studies at Potsdam University, said his relative a Berlin banker called Paul von Mendelssohn-Barthody was ordered to sell the painting in 1934 to an art dealer.

A US judge dismissed the case last week after finding out that Professor Schoeps did not have the right to sue. Justice Rolando Acosta, sitting at the New York State Supreme Court, said the painting had been sold at least four times since Mendelssohn-Barthody died in 1935. The most recent sale was to the Lloyd Webber foundation, which bought the work in 1995 for 14.1m. The judge dismissed the case, saying it was not clear that Professor Schoeps was "a rightful heir to the painting".

He added: "Professor Schoeps "does not have the [legal right] to bring this action without being appointed a personal representative of the estate of Mendelssohn-Barthody."

Mendelssohn-Barthody did not mention the painting in his will and it was not clear that he owned it when he died, the judge said. A spokeswoman for the Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation said: "The case has been dismissed in New York. It is now the intention of the foundation to prove title once and for all."

The charity is seeking a "negative declaration" to prove its ownership. It is estimated the High Court case could take two years to reach a conclusion.

Sarah Jackson, a historic claims director for the Art Loss Register, which has 50,000 missing and looted works on its books, said Professor Schoeps's claim "did a disservice" to those working for the restitution of looted art. She added: "There was enormous surprise and shock that a claim was made on a piece that had been sold four times and its ownership by the Lloyd Webber foundation was well-known it had been exhibited in London.

"For claims like this to happen doesn't help the vast numbers of bona fide claimants. It besmirches the whole subject."

The Absinthe Drinker is one of the most important works from Picasso's Blue Period, which lasted from 1902 to 1904. It has been exhibited at the National Gallery and Royal Academy since it was bought by the Lloyd Webber foundation. Proceeds from its sale will benefit a variety of charitable causes and Lord Lloyd-Webber will make no personal gain from the sale.

Angel de Soto met Picasso in about 1899 at the Eden Concert, a cabaret show in Barcelona's gothic quarter. They became great friends and briefly shared a studio, until de Soto's penchant for entertaining women interfered with Picasso's work.

De Soto, who was killed in 1938 in the Spanish Civil War, appeared in several images by the artist.

Lord Lloyd Webber set up his foundation in 1992 to advance public art education.

Great art battles

Washington, October 2007

Elizabeth Taylor won a legal battle over a Vincent van Gogh work, View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint-Remy, when the US Supreme Court rejected a suit filed by four family members who claimed the artwork belonged to a Jewish ancestor who they claimed was forced to sell the painting to her oppressors before fleeing Nazi Germany for South Africa in 1939.

Los Angeles, October 2007

A judge rejected a claim by Marei von Saher of Connecticut, the heir of a Jewish art dealer who lost works to Nazis during the Second World War, for a pair of paintings of Adam and Eve by the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, kept by the Norton Simon Museum.

Netherlands, February 2006

In the largest art restitution case seen in the Netherlands, the Dutch government agreed to hand back 202 paintings, including works by Anthony van Dyck, Filippino Lippi and Jan Steen, more than 65 years after they fell into the hands of Nazis including Hermann Goering. The move followed an eight-year legal battle between the descendants of a prominent Jewish art dealer, Jacques Goudstikker, and the Dutch state. The collection was reported to be worth upto $385m (150m).

Hungary, October 2000

Martha Nierenberg, the granddaughter of a Jewish baron and art collector won a long legal battle with the Hungarian state to prove she owned ten paintings, including works by El Greco, Van Dyck and Cranach the Elder, worth around $5m (3m).