S$152 million Picasso bust at centre of legal fight

NEW YORK (NYT) - In a clash of two art market titans, the high-powered dealer Larry Gagosian and the Qatar royal family - now one of the world's biggest collectors - have entered a legal dispute over who owns Picasso's important plaster bust of his muse (and mistress) Marie-Therese, which is featured in the Museum of Modern Art's current sculpture show.

In a legal action filed on Tuesday (Jan 12) morning and obtained by The New York Times, Mr Gagosian claims that he bought the 1931 sculpture last May for about US$106 million (S$152 million) from Picasso's daughter, Ms Maya Widmaier-Picasso - with the advice of her daughter Diana - and then sold the sculpture to an undisclosed New York collector who expects to receive it after MoMA's show closes on Feb 7.

The bust is a major work from a highly creative and emotional time in the artist's life, depicting the evolution of a new erotic style he was developing that celebrated Marie-Therese's beauty.

But the Qatari family's agent, Pelham Holdings, which is run by Mr Guy Bennett, maintains that it had secured an agreement with Widmaier-Picasso in November 2014 to buy the work at 38 million euros (S$59 million).

The conflict highlights the stubbornly elusive nature of an increasingly competitive art market, in which deals are made behind closed doors and both the ownership and the worth of any given artwork can be difficult to determine.

It also underscores the recession-proof value of Picasso's works to dealers and collectors.

Picasso's total fine art sales in 2015 were just over US$652 million, beating out Andy Warhol for the year, according to Artnet, a New York based art researcher.

On Tuesday, the Gagosian Gallery filed an action against Pelham Europe in Manhattan federal court asking a judge to "quiet" any challenges or claims to its title of the artwork.

"We bought and sold the sculpture in good faith without knowledge of the alleged claim," the Gagosian Gallery said in a statement.

Mr Gagosian has a longstanding relationship with members of the Picasso family, having collaborated with Ms Diana Widmaier-Picasso, the artist's grand-daughter, on a show of his sculptures at Gagosian's uptown New York gallery in 2003.

In 2011, Mr Gagosian mounted an exhibition at his Chelsea gallery of the artist's work inspired by the relationship between Picasso and Marie-Therese, who were Maya Widmaier-Picasso's parents (although the pair never married).

The show, Picasso And Marie-Therese; L'amour Fou, prompted several bidders to offer "more than US$100 million for the work", court papers say.

Ms Widmaier-Picasso originally agreed to sell the sculpture in Nov 2014 through the now-defunct firm Connery, Pissarro, Seydoux to Pelham, which purchased it on behalf of Sheik Jassim bin Abdulaziz al-Thani.

He is married to Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority, who has become one of the most powerful players in the art world.

The al-Thani family has ruled the oil-rich state since its founding in 1850.

In court papers, Mr Gagosian - represented by Dontzin Nagy & Fleissig - questions how Pelham managed to secure Ms Widmaier-Picasso's "supposed consent to such an unreasonably low price" of US$42 million and whether the Pelham agreement was ever valid, since it requires "full payment".

After consulting with her daughter Diana, who reminded her mother of the offers in excess of US$100 million, court papers say, Ms Widmaier-Picasso contested the sale as "null and void", returning the 6 million euros of the purchase price that Pelham had paid that far.

In May 2015, Ms Widmaier-Picasso - with Diana's advice - agreed to sell the work to Gagosian for US$105.8 million, with the understanding that he would resell it.

That same month, Pelham sued Ms Widmaier-Picasso and Connery Seydoux in Switzerland to execute the sale. It then unsuccessfully petitioned a French court to seize the work from Ms Widmaier-Picasso.

By the time he died in 1973, Picasso had created around 50,000 artworks and had left behind four children and eight grandchildren, along with wives and muses, who have frequently battled over his estate and legacy.

Recently, another Picasso granddaughter, Ms Marina Picasso, raised art market concerns by preparing to sell off many of the artist's works to finance and broaden her philanthropy.