The painting in question is "Madame Soler" from 1903, part of the artist's Blue Period, on display at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich.
For the Bavarian State Painting Collections — the state authority which oversees the Munich museum's collection — it should remain here; in their view, the painting is not looted art.
But historian Julius H. Schoeps claims to be the heir of the rightful owner of the artwork. He has said the painting clearly belonged to his great-uncle, the German-Jewish banker and art collector Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
Schoeps, emeritus professor of modern history at the University of Potsdam, spent years doing his own research in archives around the world and wrote a book about the case, "Who Owns Picasso's 'Madame Soler'?"
For him, it's clear: The fact that the painting was offered for sale in 1935 was the result of the disenfranchisement and persecution of Jews after Hitler came to power in 1933. "The fact that Bavaria claims there was no persecution at all until 1935 is completely ahistorical," he told DW, indignantly.
'We can do nothing'
It is a dispute that seems predestined for the Advisory Commission on Nazi-Looted Property, founded 20 years ago to make recommendations in complicated cases of restitution disputes.
The hitch? It can only begin its work if both parties agree to it.
"In the case of 'Madame Soler,' the families have been fighting for almost 10 years to have the case referred to the commission," Hans-Jürgen Papier, the commission president, noted critically. "But the Free State of Bavaria categorically refuses. We can do nothing."
Commission head calls for reform
Thus, to commemorate the commission's 20th anniversary, Papier is now calling for fundamental reforms, aiming to allow victims of Nazi persecution to unilaterally call upon the commission to make recommendations — without waiting for the museums to give their consent. And the commission's recommendations would have to be binding.
He said they are currently stuck in a legal vacuum, adding that for now, when museums return paintings, these actions are on a "voluntary basis, and at best, morally-motivated." But, he added, "The victims have no legal rights."
Germany signed the Washington Principles in 1998, in which 43 states undertook to identify "works of art seized as a result of Nazi persecution" and to find "just and fair solutions" with the owners or their heirs. Germany is not complying, said Schoeps.
"Germany is the country of perpetrators. And in this country in particular, heirs often despair at how they are being dealt with," he said. If something is not finally done, Germany's reputation will be damaged internationally, he added.
He cited the fact that the heirs of von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy have reached settlements with museums outside Germany on several occasions, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Guggenheim in New York.
Demand for restitution law
Culture Minister Claudia Roth, who came to the Jewish Museum Berlin for the Commission's ceremony, has promised that there will be reforms.
She said consultations with the federal states — whose approval is needed in this case in Germany's federal system — would be held before the end of October 2023. A unilateral appeal to the commission will also be possible.
For Papier, this does not go far enough. He has called for restitution legislation. Otherwise, the unilateral appeal would not be enforceable at all, believes Papier, who was the former president of the Federal Constitutional Court.
The Advisory Commission on Nazi-Looted Property has made 23 recommendations in its 20 years of existence. "That is too few," he insisted, even if the cases in which the commission intervened were groundbreaking.
Return of two Canalettos: What does restitution achieve?
The commission was successful, for example, in settling a dispute over two paintings by the Italian old master Bernardo Bellotto, known as Canaletto.
The dispute dragged on for 15 years. The paintings had once belonged to the Jewish department store magnate and important art patron, Max Emden.
During the Nazi era, he had to sell them to Adolf Hitler's private collection in a roundabout way — for less than their value, as the Emden family's lawyers argued.
After the war, US soldiers found the paintings, which later ended up in the art depot of the Federal Finance Ministry. For a time, they hung in the official residence of the German president, and later in the Military History Museum in Dresden.
There, they were convinced Emden had been safe in Switzerland at the time of the sale. It was up to the heirs to prove that Emden had sold the Canalettos "out of a loss of assets due to persecution."
Maeva Emden, Emden's great-granddaughter who grew up in Chile, recalls the many bureaucratic hurdles her family had to overcome.
The commission eventually recommended the return of the two Canalettos.
In 2020, they were auctioned off at Sotheby's. The work "View of the Zwinger Graben in Dresden" alone sold for €6 million ($6.4 million).
"The necessary legal support by lawyers over the years made it necessary to sell the pictures," says Maeva Emden. She would have preferred to have made the Canalettos available to the Kunsthalle in Hamburg — the former hometown of her great-grandfather.
Above all, she says that she wants recognition of "what Max Emden has done for Hamburg and for Germany. There are so many Jewish families whose memory has been extinguished because they were murdered."
Art can be returned, but not people
In 2017, the watercolor "Marsh Landscape with Red Windmill," by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, was returned to the Reynolds family on the commission's recommendation.
It had belonged to Jewish entrepreneur and art collector Max Rüdenberg.
The 87-year-old Vernon Reynolds is Rüdenberg's grandson.
"What are paintings?" he asked. He would much rather talk about the loss of people than about the restitution of artworks. "Works of art can be returned, people can't," he told DW. "I lost my father and my grandparents on both sides. Uncles, aunts — all lost forever."
Vernon Reynolds, born in Berlin in 1935, survived with his mother — thanks in part to his grandfather's art collection. Rüdenberg and his wife Greta sold what they could to get the family out of the country.
Vernon's brother and sister made it to England on one of the Kindertransports, which evacuated children from Nazi-controlled territory. His mother also managed to escape with Vernon, who was 3 years old at the time. His grandparents Max and Greta Rüdenberg, however, remained in Germany, and were murdered in Theresienstadt. Vernon Reynolds' father died in Auschwitz.
This article was originally written in German.