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.
Picasso’s total fine art sales in 2015 were just over $652 million, beating out Andy Warhol for the year, according to Artnet, the New York-based art platform. Last May, Picasso’s 1955 painting “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” sold at Christie’s for $179.4 million, a high for any artwork at auction, not accounting for inflation.
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.
In 2011, his Chelsea gallery exhibited the plaster bust along with other work inspired by the relationship between Picasso and Walter, who were Maya Widmaier-Picasso’s parents (the pair never married). The show prompted several bidders to offer “more than $100 million for the work,” Mr. Gagosian’s court papers say.
According to Pelham’s filings, Ms. Widmaier-Picasso originally agreed to sell the sculpture in November 2014 through the art dealers Connery, Pissarro, Seydoux, a now disbanded firm, to Pelham, which bought 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 Thani family has ruled the oil-rich state since its founding in 1850.
In court papers, Mr. Gagosian questions how Pelham managed to secure Ms. Widmaier-Picasso’s “supposed consent to such an unreasonably low price,” referring to the $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 $100 million, Mr. Gagosian’s papers say, Ms. Widmaier-Picasso contested the sale as “null and void,” returning the 6 million euros (roughly $6.5 million) of the purchase price that Pelham had paid so far.
According to Pelham’s court papers, Ms. Widmaier-Picasso’s counsel, Sabine Cordesse, asked in April 2015 that the sale to the royal family be canceled. Pelham says Ms. Cordesse “told them that Widmaier-Picasso lacked mental capacity” to agree to the transaction “due to purported medical issues.” Ms. Cordesse, reached on Tuesday in Paris, declined to comment.
Pelham further asserts that its purchase of the sculpture was negotiated by Ms. Widmaier-Picasso’s son, Olivier Widmaier-Picasso, “whom no one contends was ever cognitively impaired or had any interest other than negotiating a fair market value for the sculpture.”
Mr. Gagosian later made his deal with Diana Widmaier-Picasso, Pelham says, “in an attempt to thwart Pelham’s rights because they sought a higher purchase price.”
Mr. Gagosian asserts that Maya Widmaier-Picasso agreed to sell the work to him in May for $105.8 million, with the understanding that he would resell it.
That same month, Pelham sued Ms. Widmaier-Picasso and Connery, Pissarro, Seydoux in Switzerland to enforce the sale. It then obtained a court order to prevent Ms. Widmaier-Picasso from moving the sculpture, an injunction which has been challenged and is under appeal.
Mr. Gagosian maintains that on Oct. 2, 2015, title passed to him after his third payment to Ms. Widmaier-Picasso, and that he has to date paid $79.7 million, or 75 percent of the purchase price.
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.”