A descendant of former owners of a Picasso painting with a controversial Nazi-era history sued to recover the canvas scheduled to be auctioned Wednesday, prompting Christie’s auction house officials to withdraw it from sale.
Christie’s and the Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation, a London-based charity that owns the piece, said that “with great reluctance” they were withdrawing “the magnificent Blue Period ‘Portrait de Angel Fernandez de Soto”’ from the sale of Impressionist and Modern Art.
The joint decision was the result “of eleventh-hour claims — claims that Christie’s and the foundation believe to have no merit — about title to the picture,” they said in a statement.
Julius Schoeps, of Berlin, filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Manhattan’s state Supreme Court, claiming that one of his ancestors, a wealthy banker named Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, was subjected to Nazi intimidation and forced to sell prized paintings into a depressed art market in the 1930s.
A similar federal lawsuit was thrown out Tuesday. U.S. District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff said federal courts did not have jurisdiction to hear Schoeps’ claim, and noted the painting had been in the art market for 50 years.
Christie’s had estimated the painting, bought by the Webber foundation for $29.1 million in 1995, would sell for up to $60 million.
Schoeps’ state lawsuit asked the court to declare him the rightful owner of the painting, which depicts Picasso’s friend de Soto. The suit names the foundation as the only defendant and asks that Schoeps, whose family is related to the composer Felix Mendelssohn, be awarded immediate possession of the painting or at least $60 million.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer of such musicals as “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera,” had intended to spend the proceeds from the Picasso on actors’ scholarships and other theatrical endeavors.
Five other paintings up for sale at Wednesday evening’s auction also have Nazi-era histories, but they were not in dispute. Four of them, by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, sold for a combined $192.5 million, including a portrait of a wealthy industrialist’s wife that went for $87.9 million.
The fifth, a Berlin street scene by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, sold for $38 million.
All the paintings exceeded their presale estimates, Christie’s said. The identities of the buyers were not immediately released. The sale prices included auction house commissions of 20 percent up to $200,000 and 12 percent above that.
The four Klimts previously had been the focus of a restitution feud between their Jewish heirs and the Austrian government. They had recently hung at in New York City’s Neue Galerie museum.
Those paintings were handed over by Austria in January to Maria Altmann, niece of a Viennese art patron, following a seven-year legal battle. An arbitration court had ruled that the works were improperly seized when the Nazis took over Austria during World War II.
The work by Kirchner, “Berliner Strassenszene,” recently was turned over to the heirs of Jewish shoe factory owner Alfred Hess by the Brucke-Museum in Berlin, where it hung since 1980. The heirs claimed Hess was forced to hand the work over to the Nazis.
Art experts in Germany and Switzerland said the handover set a dangerous precedent that would hurt museum holdings. They argued that the family decided to sell the painting in the 1930s because of Hess’ financial troubles — not the Nazis. But Berlin city officials called the restitution an act of historical justice.