Billionaire Collector Sues Dealer Over Picasso Painting She Didn’t Realize Was Missing

The Florida dealer insists he acquired the work legally.

Wilma "Billie" Tisch. Photo: RYAN MCCUNE/PatrickMcMullan

Would you notice if your Picasso went missing? A billionaire New York art collector only realized earlier this month that her painting by the Spanish master disappeared from her Manhattan apartment sometime after 2009. Now, she’s suing a Florida gallery for trying to sell it.

According to court documents, 88-year-old socialite Wilma “Billie” Tisch is seeking $1 million in damages from gallery owner Kenneth Hendel, of Miami’s Gallery Art.

At an emergency hearing at Manhattan Supreme Court on Wednesday, Tisch’s attorney, Luke Nikas (who also represented Ann Freedman in the recent Knoedler forgery ring trial), told Justice Joan Kenney that his client didn’t realize that the painting had been missing for seven years because “they have a significant collection of art,” the New York Post reported.

Tisch claims she last saw the 1928 portrait of Picasso’s mistress Marie-Therese Walther in 2009, when it was appraised by Christie’s for a potential sale. Nikas said that he believes Tisch’s former maid, who has since moved to Ecuador, stole the artwork at some point before 2013.

Pablo Picasso Tête (1928) Photo: Courtesy of Ken Hendel/Gallery Art

Pablo Picasso, Tête (1928).
Photo: Courtesy of Ken Hendel/Gallery Art.

Tisch only realized the artwork was missing when a Manhattan art dealer emailed her son, Thomas Tisch, notifying him that he was about to purchase a painting that once belonged to his father.

Since disappearing, the artwork actually appeared at auction at Sotheby’s in 2013, where it failed to sell. Amazingly, nobody noticed. According to the auction catalog, Tisch’s deceased husband, Laurence Tisch, sold the artwork to an unnamed collector, but the socialite “found no record reflecting any sale or gift of the work,” according to court documents.

Meanwhile, gallerist Hendel insists he’s innocent. “How rich is too rich to not know your Picasso is gone for eight years?” Hendel asked in a telephone interview with artnet News.

“Our contention is Wilma’s a little delusional,” the dealer continued. “And she’s been quoted by her lawyer Luke Nikas as ‘she’s worse than a bat on fire.’ I mean, she’s 88 years old! So who knows if she didn’t give it to the maid as a gift? And nine years later all of a sudden hello! I mean, I’ve owned it for 3 years, I’ve shown it at Art Basel!”

Florida dealer Ken Hendel insists he acted in good faith. Photo: Courtesy Ken Hendel/Gallery Art

Florida dealer Ken Hendel insists he acted in good faith.
Photo: Courtesy Ken Hendel/Gallery Art.

Hendel added that he did all necessary due diligence before purchasing the artwork. “It’s not like I did anything in bad faith. I looked at Art Loss Register.”

According to records, Hendel bought the painting from a Miami LLC owned by a man called Mahmoud Antar for $500,000 in June 2013. Hendel’s attorney, Robert Stok, said Antar bought the Picasso from Tisch’s former maid for $60,000 in February 2013. Stok says that Tisch gave the maid the artwork as a gift.

“I guess it’s Samson against Goliath,” Hendel said. “The Tisch’s have unlimited funds. I talked to Luke Nikas before the lawsuit started and offered to settle immediately. He said he would get back to me and never did. They got more money to throw around than anybody and just filed the lawsuit.” He added “Mr. Hendel is looking for a settlement, he certainly doesn’t want to get litigious!”

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