Picasso bust at center of custody battle between Armenian art dealer and Qatar Royal Family

New York Times – Picasso Bust at the center of custody battle between American Armenian art dealer Gagosian and the Qatar Royal Family.

The high-powered art dealer Larry Gagosian says he bought it. The royal family of Qatar says it bought the sculpture, too. And now they are facing off in court over who owns Picasso’s important plaster bust of his muse (and mistress) Marie-Thérèse Walter, a star of the Museum of Modern Art’s popular “Picasso Sculpture” show.

The seller, in both cases, was Picasso’s daughter Maya Widmaier-Picasso, 80. She declined to comment on why she appears to have sold the artwork twice.

In a legal action filed on Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan against the Qatari family’s agent, Mr. Gagosian claims that he bought the 1931 sculpture in May 2015 for about $106 million from Ms. Widmaier-Picasso, and then sold it to an undisclosed New York collector who expects to receive it after MoMA’s show closes on Feb. 7.

But the Qatari family’s agent, Pelham Holdings, run by Guy Bennett, maintains in its own court documents that it secured an agreement with Ms. Widmaier-Picasso to buy the work in November 2014 for 38 million euros, or about $42 million.

The bust, a major work from a highly creative period in Picasso’s life, reflects the evolution of a new erotic style of curves and exaggerated forms inspired by Walter’s charms.

The conflict exposes the stubbornly elusive nature of an increasingly competitive art market, in which deals are made behind closed doors and ownership can be ambiguous.

The case is further complicated by the particular nature of Picasso’s family, which includes a multitude of wives, muses, children and grandchildren who over the years have wrangled over the patriarch’s valuable creations, and in many cases sold off works.

In the action filed Tuesday against Pelham, the Gagosian Gallery asked a judge to “quiet” any challenges or claims to its title of the bust.

“We bought and sold the sculpture in good faith without knowledge of the alleged claim,” the gallery said in a statement, referring to Pelham’s lawsuit. “We are entirely confident that our purchase and sale are valid and that Pelham has no rights to the work.”

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

The dealer added in court papers that he “did not learn anything” about Pelham’s claim to the work until later that month, when Pelham — realizing that the disputed sculpture was in the MoMA show — alerted Mr. Gagosian that it had a “priority claim” to the work.

Glenn D. Lowry, MoMA’s director, said he had no comment on the case.

Experts say the dispute casts a shadow over a prized piece of art history. “It’s regrettable that this has come to a quarrel between dealers and collectors,” said John Richardson, Picasso’s longtime biographer. “It’s a major work by Picasso.”

Since late November, Pelham says it has been trying to get the Gagosian Gallery to provide information regarding the sale.

“They continue to obfuscate the relevant facts,” Pelham charges.

Mr. Gagosian made clear that his dispute is with the Qataris’ representative, not the royal family. “We have the highest respect for Sheik al Thani, a longtime friend of the Gallery,” the dealer said in a statement, “and regret that he has been unfairly drawn into this matter.”

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