Bust of a Woman Displayed at MOMA, Disputed in N.Y. Court

  • Gagosian fighting European challenge to sculpture's ownership
  • New York judge being asked to determine the rightful owner

Pablo Picasso’s 1931 sculpture Bust of a Woman, currently on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, has also taken center stage in a Manhattan court in a dispute over its ownership.

Art gallery owner Larry Gagosian says he agreed to buy the sculpture of Picasso’s mistress and model, Marie-Therese Walter, for $106 million last year and has a new buyer lined up for the work of art. Gagosian’s deal is being jeopardized by a claim from Pelham Europe Ltd., founded by Guy Bennett, former international head of the Impressionist and modern art evening sales at Christie’s International Plc.

Picasso’s Bust of a Woman

Photographer: Katya Kazakina/Bloomberg

Pelham "claims to have secured an agreement to buy the work at an inexplicably low price," of about $42 million, through an intermediary called Connery Pissarro Seydoux SAS, Gagosian said Tuesday in a court filing in Manhattan federal court. Paying such a minimal amount would have given Pelham a "windfall" worth more than $60 million at the expense of the abstract artist’s daughter Maya Widmaier-Picasso and his granddaughter, Diana Widmaier-Picasso, the art dealer says.

Gagosian asked a judge to declare him the rightful owner.

Picasso’s auction sales tallied $652 million in 2015, according to Artnet, which tracks auction revenue. Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)” fetched $179.4 million in May, the highest price for any artwork at auction.

Third Payment

Gagosian says ownership of the work was passed to him Oct. 2, when he made a third payment bringing the total he gave Maya Widmaier-Picasso and the granddaughter to $79.7 million, or 75 percent of the agreed purchase price. Pelham has threatened to have the piece removed from the museum, as it asserts its claim, Gagosian said.

Margaret Doyle, a spokeswoman for MOMA, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Pelham never took title to the work because its claim is only valid if it made payment in full, Gagosian said. To date, the company paid about 6 million euros ($6.5 million), Gagosian said.

Widmaier-Picasso has contested the sale of the sculpture to Pelham as void and returned all the money to the company, according to Gagosian.
 
Pelham keeps making threats and is trying to gain ownership in other ways, including suing Widmaier-Picasso in Switzerland, Gagosian said. Pelham also asked a French court to seize the work after the New York show closes, Gagosian said. And, Pelham sued in Manhattan in November seeking evidence from Gagosian about the sculpture’s sale.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Woods directed Gagosian on Dec. 23 to turn over any documents he had about his negotiations over the purchase of the sculpture. He has until Feb. 29 to complete the production of the documents.

Both Gagosian and Diana Widmaier-Picasso will have to answer questions under oath about the sale by April 1, according to court documents.

Gagosian’s lawsuit were earlier reported by the New York Times.

The case is Gagosian Gallery Inc. v Pelham Europe Ltd. 16-cv-00214. U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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