Picasso custody battle heats up as New York trial looms

People observing the art piece "Bust of a Woman (Marie-Therese)"  at The Museum of Modern Art's major exhibition of Picasso Sculptures in New York.
People observing the art piece "Bust of a Woman (Marie-Therese)" at The Museum of Modern Art's major exhibition of Picasso Sculptures in New York. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - A custody battle for a US$100 million (S$137.48 million) Picassso sculpture has intensified in New York between British agents acting on behalf of the Qatari royal family and a prominent American art dealer.

Unless an out of court settlement can be reached, the case is scheduled to go to trial before Judge William Pauley in Manhattan on September 19 to determine its rightful owner and to seek damages against New York dealer Larry Gagosian and Picasso's granddaughter Diana Widmaier-Picasso.

The sculpture in question is the 1931 "Bust of a Woman (Marie-Therese)", which was on display at New York's Museum of Modern Art until last month as part of the largest exhibit of sculpture by the Spanish master in 50 years.

The tortured legal dispute stretches from courts in France to Switzerland and America, lifting a lid on a breakdown in communications and rivalry among the descendants of one of the 20th century's greatest artists.

Lawyers for London-based agents Pelham Europe are demanding that the US court hand over the sculpture, invalidate a rival claim from Gagosian and billionaire Leon Black, and for Gagosian and Widmaier-Picasso, to pay damages.

They say Picasso's daughter, Maya, whose mother Marie-Therese is depicted in the sculpture, directed its sale to Pelham in November 2014 for US$47 million so it could go on public display in a Qatar museum.

Maya had made it clear she did not want her daughter Diana to be involved, worrying that she would make reproductions of the sculpture or sell it to Gagosian, according to the court papers filed at the US federal court Friday.

Her son, Olivier, however, was fully involved, they say.

But days before the final payment was due, Maya renounced the agreement and rejected the final payment from Pelham.

Pelham's lawyers say an "enraged" Diana had found out and hatched a plot with her long-time associate Gagosian, by which Maya would sell the sculpture to him in secret so he could sell it on for a much higher price.

Court papers say that Gagosian made the deal with Black, who reportedly bought Edvard Munch's "The Scream" for US$120 million in 2012, then the highest price for a work of art sold at auction.

Although Pelham went to court in Switzerland and France to claim the sculpture back and stop Maya moving it from Paris, it was sold regardless in May 2015, according to US court papers.

That September, the sculpture went on display in the MoMA exhibition in New York as "courtesy of Gagosian Gallery" - without Pelham's knowledge.

Pelham went to court in New York, where Gagosian disclosed he had acquired the sculpture for "more than US$100 million" and sold it to an undisclosed buyer.

In January, Gagosian filed a petition saying he was the rightful owner and had concluded an agreement with a New York buyer, who would take possession of the sculpture once the exhibit ended on Feb 7.

But last month, the French court tossed out defense allegations that Maya had acted out of diminished mental capacity and said Pelham could renew its claim.