Fate of New York restaurant's fragile Picasso heads to court

NEW YORK Wed Apr 2, 2014 2:32pm IST

A 19-by-20-foot theater curtain ''Le Tricorne'' painted by Pablo Picasso hangs at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City, April 1, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Segar

A 19-by-20-foot theater curtain ''Le Tricorne'' painted by Pablo Picasso hangs at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City, April 1, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The question of whether a fragile Picasso painting in New York City's Four Seasons restaurant will crumble if taken down to allow repairs to the wall it hangs on will go to a state court judge on Wednesday.

The dispute between the restaurant's landlord and the painting's owner takes place in a grand setting: The Seagram Building, the influential masterpiece of International Style corporate architecture designed by Mies van der Rohe.

Aby Rosen, the real estate developer who has owned the Seagram Building since 2000, wants the Picasso taken down from its prominent mount amid the rich and powerful who dine at the Four Seasons on the skyscraper's ground floor.

The 19-foot-high (5.8-meter-high) unframed painted theater curtain depicting figures overlooking a bullring has hung in the hallway between two dining rooms since the restaurant's 1959 opening, earning the hallway the nickname "Picasso Alley."

Rosen contends the wall on which it hangs has been damaged by moisture and steam from the kitchens on the other side, according to papers filed with the state supreme court in Manhattan. Without repairs, the painting itself is in jeopardy, he contends.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy, the non-profit preservationist group that owns the Picasso, argues the wall is fine and that removing the painting risked destroying it and harming the restaurant's landmarked interior. The conservancy was bequeathed the Picasso in 2005 by Vivendi Universal, which had acquired the painting a few years earlier.

Peg Breen, the conservancy's president, said in an interview that the painting was the "iconic center" of the Four Seasons.

"It's considered one of the loveliest interior landmarks in America and it's all worked together; it's all of a piece," she said. Referring to the restaurant's architect, she added, "Philip Johnson didn't just say, 'We'll slap up a Picasso for a little while and we'll see what else comes along.'"

The conservancy, which won a temporary injunction a few days before Rosen's movers were due to arrive in February, said Rosen is exaggerating the wall's condition out of a dislike for the painting.

"Mr. Rosen has previously referred to the Picasso curtain as a 'schmatte,' the Yiddish word for rag," the conservancy said in a court filing. Rosen has not said if he wants the Picasso to be returned to its old spot if it is removed.

Rosen, who is also a prominent collector of modern and contemporary art, did not respond to interview requests, but has previously said he has several Picasso works in his home.

Both sides have dispatched engineers and experts to view the wall. Only those sent by Rosen have found the condition of the wall to be alarming.

Even an art mover retained by Rosen conceded the curtain could "crack like a potato chip," the conservancy said.

The city designated the Seagram Building and the interior of the Four Seasons protected landmarks in 1989, although the Picasso is explicitly excluded from that designation.

Rosen's lawyers say he has no obligation to house someone else's painting in his building indefinitely.

Pablo Picasso painted the curtain in 1919 for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes as part of his designs for the sets for the London premiere of Le Tricorne.

It is not clear when State Supreme Court Judge Carol Edmead will rule on the conservancy's plea for a permanent injunction against the painting's removal after Wednesday's hearing. Owners of the Four Seasons did not respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Scott Malone and Richard Chang)

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