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Qatari royals in legal battle over Picasso sculpture

Custody of Picasso’s ‘Bust of a Woman’ is under dispute

A multi-million pound sculpture by famed artist Pablo Picasso is at the centre of a legal battle between New York art dealer, Larry Gagosian and representatives for the Qatari royal family.

Both parties are asserting claims that they are the rightful owners of the 1931 Bust of a Woman, currently on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The sculpture is a popular and important piece of Picasso’s artwork and is based on Marie-Thérèse Walter, the artist’s muse and mistress.

According to legal documents, Gagosian claims that he purchased the sculpture from Mr Picasso’s daughter, Maya Widmaier-Picasso, 80, in May 2015 for around $106million (£73.5million). The claims has been contested by Pelham Holdings, the Qatari Royal Family’s agent, who maintain that Ms. Widmaier-Picasso sold the artwork to them in November 2014 for a considerably lower price of $42million (£29million).

Pelham are acting on behalf of Sheikh Jassim bin Abdulaziz al-Thani whose wife, Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, is a prominent figure on the Qatari art scene and is Chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority. The firm says it has been trying to get the Gagosian Gallery to provide information regarding the sale since late November, but the latter “continues to obfuscate the relevant facts.”

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

The dispute over the 85-year-old sculpture throws the competitive nature of art buying into the spotlight. Often, deals for sought-after pieces of artwork are made behind-the-scenes which means ownership can be hard to distinguish.

Picasso’s daughter has declined to comment on why she appears to have sold the artwork twice, and has already been taken to court by Pelham in an attempt to prevent her moving the sculpture. The court order, handed down in May 2015, is currently under appeal.

In court papers, Mr. Gagosian raises Pelham’s considerably lower offer ($42million), questioning how the firm managed to secure Ms. Widmaier-Picasso’s “supposed consent to such an unreasonably low price,”and, since the contract requires full payment, whether the firm’s agreement was ever valid.

Mr Gagosian, who said he negotiated his own sale through Ms. Widmaier-Picasso’s daughter, Diana, said Pelham’s offer was contested as “null and void” once Diana had reminded her mother of the offers in excess of $100million. As such, Pelham’s part-payment of $6.5million was returned.

He claims that he did not know anything the-claimed Pelham sale before his own offer, saying that it was only when the sculpture went on display at the Museum of Modern Art, that Pelham informed him they had a “priority claim” over the artwork.

The dealer, who has a reputation for staging museum-quality exhibitions at his galleries, maintains that ownership of the bust passed to him on October 2, 2015 following his third payment to Ms. Widmaier-Picasso. He says that $79.7million, 75% of the purchase price, has been paid to date.

Pelham, meanwhile, say that they were dealing with Ms. Widmaier-Picasso’s son Oliver following claims that their sale was cancelled as Widmaier-Picasso lacked mental capacity” to agree to the transaction “due to purported medical issues.” The firm say that no such issues were ever made apparent to them before the cancellation.

It is unknown what the Qatari royals plan to do with the bust, should they be shown to be the rightful owners. With the Sheika an influential figure in the art and museum world, it may go on display elsewhere, be kept for private collection or resold at a later date.

Gagosian released a statement, making clear that he has no qualms with the royal family, saying: “We have the highest respect for Sheik al Thani, a longtime friend of the Gallery, and regret that he has been unfairly drawn into this matter.”

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