A Manhattan billionaire and an Aventura art dealer are entangled in a very public tug-of-war — over Picasso’s very valuable lover. But how things got to this point is a bit of an artful mystery.
Socialite Wilma “Billie” Tisch, the 88-year-old widow of real estate magnate Laurence Tisch, filed a lawsuit in New York on Wednesday contending that a 1928 painting by Pablo Picasso entitled Portrait De Marie-Therese was stolen from her New York home sometime after 2009 — but she didn’t notice it was missing until a few weeks ago.
The suit claims Tisch’s agents tracked the painting down to a New York storage facility, but before they could recover it, it was spirited away — to art dealer Kenneth Handel’s Gallery Art in Aventura.
Hendel says he’s flabbergasted by the claim. He says he bought the 14-inch-by-7 1/2-inch portrait of Picasso’s mistress Marie-Therese Walter, legitimately, from dealer Mahmoud Antar in 2013 in Miami for $350,000, and knows nothing about the painting being stolen.
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Quoth Hendel: “When are you too rich to notice that a Picasso is missing after eight years?”
Answer: When you’re worth $1.41 billion, the reported net worth of Tisch, according to Forbes Magazine.
Hendel said he’s been trying to sell the painting, which is now hanging in his gallery, since he bought it. Asking price: $1.1 million. Hendel said he’s shown it on and off in Miami, including at the Red Dot art fair during Art Basel week last December, and had shipped it up to New York to try selling it. It was just returned to his gallery on Wednesday, he said.
But Tisch’s lawsuit suggests Hendel retrieved the painting only after her lawyers at Boies, Schiller & Flexner sent the storage facility a letter demanding that the painting be returned to them by April 15, or they would sue.
“We have reason to believe the work was stolen from Mrs. Tisch,” wrote attorney Luke Nikas.
On Wednesday, they followed through on their promise.
“Hendel has refused to return or relinquish his claim of ownership over the work in spite having been informed that it was stolen from Tisch,” their lawsuit claims.
The complaint says Laurence Tisch bought the canvas in 1965 for an undisclosed amount. It also says the portrait has gone by several titles over the years, including La Penseuse and Tete, and had been valued by Christie’s at $400,000.
Tisch and her business manager, Barry Bloom, say in the filing that the painting had been hanging in the widow’s home as late as December 2009, but don’t explain how she did not come to realize it was missing earlier this year. The suit says they subsequently found out the work had been listed for auction in 2013 by Sotheby’s at an estimated value of $700,000 to $900,000 but failed to sell.
The trail then went cold until they traced it to the storage facility this month. Tisch is asking a judge for an injunction ordering Hendel not to sell or move the painting until the case is resolved. Ultimately she wants the painting back and for Hendel to pay punitive damages and cover her attorney’s fees.
“You see this? This is what I’m up against,” Hendel complained, saying he’s hired a lawyer and intends to fight to keep the painting.
Hendel claims there’s a big difference between how stolen art is legally dealt with in New York and Florida. In New York, he claimed, if an art piece is stolen and then passed from dealer to dealer, it must be returned to the original owner.
Not so in Florida, said Hendel. Here, he said, the piece belongs to the last person who purchased it if it has passed through at least two people since the theft.
Jason Hernandez, a legal art expert and partner at Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson, said he could not comment on Hendel’s argument. But he said the general rule in the U.S. is that stolen property must be returned to its rightful owner.
“A thief cannot pass good title. If in fact it was stolen, it’s returned to the owner,” said Hernandez.
As for Hendel, he likely won’t end up eating the $350,000 he paid for the painting even if he’s ordered to turn it over to Tisch, Hernandez said.
“He’d have an insurance claim and he’d have some people to sue,” said the attorney.