Fate of Tisch’s allegedly stolen Picasso to be decided in Manhattan Supreme Court

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

One of the perils of being a rich person these days is the struggle to keep track of all of one’s expensive art. Case in point: Billionaire Wilma Tisch, the elderly widow of real estate titan Laurence Tisch, noticed that one of her Picassos was missing from her New York home about eight years ago. Because she was unsure if the pricey piece, valued at around $1 million, was simply in storage or out for repairs, Tisch continued to insure it but didn’t report it missing.

Now, while the 1928 portrait of the artist’s lover Marie-Therese Walter may be small in size — it measures only 14 by 7.5 inches — it has become big in both price and controversy.

The Daily New reports that a Manhattan gallery owner recently alerted Tisch’s son that the painting had been found and was now up for sale through a Miami gallery owner Kenneth Hendel. The authorities were then contacted by Tisch’s attorney, Luke Nikas.

An investigation was immediately underway and the case of the traveling artwork has many twists and turns.

The portrait was last appraised for $400,000 in 2009 by Christie’s. Later in 2013, it hit the auction block via Sotheby’s with an estimate of $600,000-$950,000. But it received no bids. The auction catalog says that Tisch’s deceased husband, Laurence, had sold the painting to a private collector.

Hendel says he then acquired the portrait fair and square, paying “fair market price” ($350,000 cash and $150,000 worth of art.) He added, “I bought it in good faith and under Florida law, I have title.” Hendel asserts he did his due diligence, checking Art Loss Register and assumed the ownership chain had been vetted by Sotheby’s as well. However, it appears the auction house had seen no receipts indicating proof of ownership.

Hendel explained that he bought it from a company run by Mahmoud Antar, a Miami-based art investor, who claimed he bought it from a housekeeper who told him it “was a gift” from the family.

“That’s what they all say,” fired back Nikas, who specializes in art controversies.

According to artnet News, the dealer disagrees. “Our contention is Wilma’s a little delusional,” the dealer explained. “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!”

So now the Picasso’s fate lies in the hands of Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Joan Kenney, who ordered it be returned Day & Meyer, the art storage facility in Manhattan, pending her April 28th court hearing.

“When is too rich, too rich to not notice you’re missing a Picasso for 10 years?” Hendel told the Post.