Battle Over $105 Million Picasso Sculpture Heats Up In Latest Complaint Against Artist’s Daughter

The latest salvo exposes detailed personal information.

Pablo Picasso Bust of a Woman (Marie Therese) (1931)

The latest filing in the ongoing legal battle between ex-Christie’s Impressionist head Guy Bennett, and power dealer Larry Gagosian exposed further details about the chronology of two competing sales of the same work. It also shines a light on disagreements between Picasso’s heirs about how works in the lucrative, multi-billion-dollar estate are handled and distributed.

Buste de Femme (1931) was first sold to Bennett’s client, Sheikh Jassim bin Abdul Aziz Al-Thani and the Qatar Museums Authority, in late 2014. The sale was authorized by Picasso’s daughter, Maya Widmaier Picasso, 80, and her son, Olivier, a lawyer who runs his own art advisory firm, according to court papers. Two of three installment payments had been made by Al-Thani before the sale was abruptly rescinded, the complaint alleges.

Maya’s daughter, Diana Widmaier-Picasso, was deliberately kept out of the loop about the sale, according to the complaint, and when she heard the news, she “flew into a rage, demanded that the Pelham Sale Agreement be repudiated, and that a new sale be made to Gagosian and his gallery.”

Leon Black. Photo: Apollo Global Management.

Leon Black.
Photo: Apollo Global Management.

A spokesman for Gagosian Gallery said in an email to artnet News: “We bought and sold the sculpture in good faith and with good title.”

The most recent amended complaint, filed March 11 by Bennett’s advisory firm, Pelham Europe, in US District Court for the Southern District of New York alleges: “At Diana’s direction, Maya repudiated the Pelham Sale Agreement on the eve of the last of three installment payments, and then entered into a secret second sale of the Sculpture to the Gagosian Gallery, which immediately resold the Sculpture to the highly sophisticated art collector Leon Black.”

Pelham is accusing Diana of “tortious interference” for allegedly intervening in the sale. The suit also takes aim at Larry Gagosian personally, with papers stating that he was “pulling the strings” and is also “liable for tortious interference” with the Pelham agreement.

Of interest is the vast disparity in the price quoted. While the price Pelham negotiated was nearly $50 million, Black purportedly agreed to pay more than double that amount—$105 million—raising the question of what his position on buying the sculpture is now that the far lower price has been made public.

The highest price ever recorded for a Picasso sculpture at auction is $29.2 million, paid for a bronze, Tête de femme (Dora Maar) dated 1941. It sold at Sotheby’s in November 2007, on an estimate of  $20–30 million.

The filing says Gagosian attempted to deflect his liability by asserting that he “blindly entered into the second sale with no knowledge of Pelham’s interest,” a position that Pelham says “fails” because Diana’s “undisputed knowledge of the Pelham Sale Agreement is attributed to Gagosian under black letter agency law…Diana notified Gagosian promptly upon learning of the Pelham sale, and Gagosian immediately began to arrange the surreptitious second purchase of the Sculpture from Maya and simultaneous resale [to] Black.”

Black himself is named as a defendant in the claim, which alleges that Diana and Gagosian rushed through a sale to Black just days after Pelham advised Maya it would pursue a suit.

Pelham has also filed legal actions in Switzerland and France.

“Through Maya and Diana’s concerted effort in the pending foreign proceedings, Gagosian’s name did not surface until almost a year after the Pelham Sale Agreement was executed, when Pelham’s counsel discovered by happenstance that the Sculpture was on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, “[c]ourtesy [of] Gagosian Gallery.”

The reference is to the Museum of Modern Art’s wildly successful Picasso sculpture show, which ran from September 14–February 7, 2016.

Following a judge’s order, the sculpture is now in possession of the Gagosian Gallery pending the outcome of legal proceedings.

A trial is currently scheduled in Manhattan court, to take place on September 19.

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