NEW YORK – A judge temporarily blocked the auction of a Picasso painting that was expected to fetch up to $60 million, saying he needed to decide whether the Nazis forced its former owner to sell it in the 1930s because his family descended from Jews.
U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff issued the order Monday, three days after Julius H. Schoeps, an heir to Berlin banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, filed a lawsuit in Manhattan to stop the sale.
A hearing was scheduled for Tuesday, a day before the "Portrait de Angel Fernandez de Soto" was to be auctioned at Christie's.
The painting of de Soto, who shared a studio with Pablo Picasso, was put up for sale by the Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation, a London-based charity.
In the lawsuit, which was filed under seal Friday, Schoeps sought to be declared the lawful owner.
The oil-on-canvas painting, signed and dated in 1903, was described in a Christie's catalog as capturing de Soto's haunting face with heavy features.
"The elegantly dressed sitter appears to scrutinize the viewer with an intense gaze, his inner agitation suggested by the forceful brushstrokes and the cloud of smoke hovering above him," said the catalog for the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale.
Christie's said the painting, estimated to sell for $40 million to $60 million, was being sold by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's foundation for income to be spent on a variety of charitable purposes.
In a statement Tuesday, the foundation dismissed the 11th hour legal action as "utterly spurious without legal or factual substance." It said the painting was purchased at a Sotheby's auction in 1995 and exhibited on many occasions since. The foundation said the painting's provenance was never questioned during that 11-year period until now.
Christie's declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was unsealed Monday.
The lawsuit said Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was subjected to Nazi intimidation that forced him to flee his mansion and begin selling prized paintings into a depressed art market.
The lawsuit said Mendelssohn-Bartholdy placed five Picassos, including the de Soto painting, on consignment for sale with Berlin art dealer Justin K. Thannhauser in October 1934.
Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a member of the family that included the composer Felix Mendelssohn, died in 1935. The composer's father converted to Christianity.
In September 1936, Thannhauser sold the painting to M. Knoedler & Co. in New York. Since the sale, the painting has been in the New York art market for about 50 years. It was sold at auction at Sotheby's New York in 1995 to Webber, the lawsuit said.