Q: How do you solve a problem like a £30m Picasso? A: Go to court

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The Independent US

Lord Lloyd-Webber was given the go-ahead to sell a £30m Picasso yesterday after last-minute legal action by a German professor who claimed ownership of the masterpiece failed.

The composer won a key ruling in a New York court which left him officially free to sell The Absinthe Drinker (Angel Fernandez de Soto). A judge had temporarily blocked Lord Lloyd- Webber's attempt to sell the work after the German professor claimed the Nazis had forced his family to sell it during the 1930s.

The impresario's charitable art foundation intends to sell the 1903 Picasso, valued at between $40 and $60m, at Christie's US auction house later today.

However, Julius Schoeps, who has insisted that he is the rightful owner of the work under new US "restitution" laws aimed at returning stolen artworks to their previous homes, may still mount a legal challenge.

Mr Schoeps is heir to the estate of the painting's original purchaser Paul Von Mendelssohn Bartholdy, a Jewish banker from Berlin, and claims that his ancestor was forced to sell it in 1934 as a consequence of Nazi persecution. At a Manhattan court last night, a federal judge dismissed Mr Schoeps' lawsuit, but said he remained free to file an appeal at state court level this morning.

That would leave Lord Lloyd- Webber's legal team with a race against time to get their painting into tonight's sale of impressionist and modern art, and sources close to the impresario say the auction is now "90 per cent likely" to be delayed.

Picasso's oil-on-canvas work depicts the Barcelona anarchist Fernandez de Soto, with whom the Spanish artist shared a studio in 1903, next to a half-empty glass of absinthe.

Documents filed by Mr Schoeps' legal team said that it was one of several major impressionist works collected by Bartholdy, who owned one of the largest private banks in Germany.

Although Bartholdy had never sold a piece before Adolf Hitler came to power, the lawsuit claimed that subsequent persecution caused Bartholdy to begin selling prized paintings into a depressed market.

As a result, Mr Schoeps argued that he was entitled to claim ownership of the work, described in the catalogue as part of "an extraordinary series of now celebrated masterpieces" .

Lord Lloyd-Webber's foundation - which bought the painting for £18m - described the claims as "utterly spurious, without legal or factual substance".

"The Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation (ALWF) purchased the picture in good faith in 1995 and it has received an enormous amount of publicity," said a spokesman last night.

"It has been exhibited publicly several times at the National Gallery as well as the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the New York Fine Arts Fair. During the 11 years the charity has owned the picture no one has previously raised any questions about the ownership."

The spokesman added that the ALWF intended to use money from the sale to purchase other works, which will then be lent to major art galleries. "The Picasso is not owned by a private individual. It is owned by a charity whose principal objectives are to advance the education of the public in the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the arts, especially painting, music and theatre. The foundation intends to use the proceeds of the sale of the painting to further those charitable objectives."

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