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Judge Bars Picasso Painting’s Removal From Four Seasons

A 1919 Pablo Picasso Stage Curtain
New York Landmarks Conservancy textile conservator Sarah Lowengard cleans the Picasso stage curtain on one of the walls of the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York in 2008. Source: New York Landmarks Conservancy, Alex Herrera via Bloomberg

A Pablo Picasso painting’s removal from the entrance to New York’s Four Seasons restaurant was blocked by a judge at the request of a preservationist group that said the artwork would be severely damaged in a move.

Justice Matthew Cooper of state Supreme Court in Manhattan yesterday granted the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s request for an order temporarily preventing the owners of the Seagram Building from moving the painted stage curtain early tomorrow morning, saying there is “clearly a danger of irreparable injury” to the work.

“It seems absurd that a work like this would be taken down at 3 a.m. on a Sunday so that it can be removed for lunch or brunch at the Four Seasons,” Cooper said. “If some damage were to occur, no amount of money can make up for the loss of a Picasso. It’s part of New York’s cultural and social fabric.”

The nonprofit conservancy sued Feb. 6 seeking an order preventing RFR Holding Corp., the owner of the Park Avenue building where the restaurant is located, from removing the 1919 painting from where it has hung for half a century.

RFR said in November that it intended to remove the work from the lobby because of a leaking steam pipe and damage to the wall behind the painting, while an engineer and an expert sent by the conservancy found no evidence of a leak or damage, according to filings in the case.

Permanent Damage

A move in a “quick and improper manner will undoubtedly result in severe and permanent damage to the Picasso curtain,” the conservancy said in court papers. A mover hired by RFR told the conservancy the work is so fragile it might “crack like a potato chip” no matter how careful they are, it said.

RFR co-founder Aby Rosen’s only reason for removing the work is that he dislikes it and wants to replace it with other art, the conservancy said. Rosen has referred to the painting as a “schmatte,” the Yiddish word for rag, it said.

RFR hired a moving company to take the painting from the building “in the dead of night,” according to the organization’s filing.

Andrew Kratenstein, an attorney of RFR, said the two parties have been trying for months to come to an agreement on the work, which was valued at $1.6 million in 2008. Kratenstein said RFR wants to move the curtain to keep it from being damaged, and that it needs to be moved early in the morning so that restaurant operations aren’t disrupted.

Legitimate Reason

“There’s a legitimate business reason to do that, and we believe we can do that safely,” Kratenstein said, adding that the conservancy is opposed to any movement of the painting. “They’re saying we parked our car in your garage and we want to leave it there forever.”

The lawyer said the owner would pay for any damage done to the curtain. The judge said that would deprive current and future generations of being able to view it.

“This is invaluable art,” Cooper said. “This is part of our cultural heritage.”

He issued an order that bars the removal of the curtain pending a March 11 hearing for further arguments.

“We’re not talking wallpaper here,” Cooper said. “We’re not talking about a poster. We’re talking about an irreplaceable Picasso.”

The interior parts of the Four Seasons are designated landmarks, as is Seagram Building itself. The area where the painting is located is known as “Picasso Alley,” making it an integral part of the restaurant, the conservancy said. RFR even refers to the painting on its website for the building, it said.

Diaghilev Ballet

The 20-foot-by-22-foot painting, whose name means “Three Cornered Hat,” is one of a handful of curtains that Picasso painted for Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet of the same name.

The painting was selected by Phyllis Lambert, daughter of the Seagram Co.’s Samuel Bronfman, to hang at the restaurant’s entrance before the modernist 38-story skyscraper, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, opened in 1958 at 375 Park Avenue between East 52nd and 53rd streets.

The work has hung at the far end of the lobby since the restaurant opened in July 1959, according to a 2005 press release from Vivendi SA, which bought Seagram in 2000. Vivendi planned to sell the curtain at an auction of works in 2003 to reduce debt and later decided to donate it to the conservancy.

The interior of the restaurant was designated a landmark by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in October 1989, according to a report on the commission’s website. The art in the restaurant, “while long associated with the restaurant,” was not part of the designation.

RFR, founded by Rosen and partner Michael Fuchs in 1991, purchased the Seagram Building for $375 million in 2000. The company also owns the Lever House at 390 Park Avenue and the Gramercy Park Hotel.

The case is In the Matter of the Application of Landmarks Conservancy Inc., 151097/2014, New York State Supreme Court, New York County (Manhattan).

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