By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The question of whether a fragile Picasso painting that covers a wall in New York City's Four Seasons Restaurant will crumble if taken down to allow repairs went before a state court judge on Wednesday.
The dispute between the restaurant's landlord and the painting's owner takes place in a grand setting: Midtown Manhattan's Seagram Building, the landmark International Style tower designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe that opened in 1958.
Real Estate developer Aby Rosen, who has owned the building since 2000, wants the Picasso taken down from its prominent space overlooking the rich and powerful who dine at the Four Seasons on the ground floor.
The 19-foot-high (5.8-meter-high) unframed painted theater curtain depicting figures overlooking a bullring has been displayed in a hallway between two dining rooms since the restaurant's 1959 opening, earning it the name "Picasso Alley."
The limestone wall on which it hangs has been damaged by moisture and steam from the kitchens on the other side, Andrew Kratenstein, a lawyer for Rosen, told the court.
An art handler hired by Rosen "was concerned it was more dangerous to leave (the painting) in place," Kratenstein said.
The New York Landmarks Conservancy, the non-profit preservationist group that was given ownership of the Picasso in 2005, argues that the wall is fine and removing the curtain risked ruining it and harming the restaurant's interior.
The conservancy's president Peg Breen called it the "iconic center" of the Four Seasons. "Philip Johnson didn't just say, 'We'll slap up a Picasso for a little while and see what else comes along,'" she said, referring to the restaurant's architect.
The conservancy, which won a temporary injunction a few days before movers were due to arrive in February, said Rosen is exaggerating the wall's state out of a dislike for the painting.
He has referred to it as a 'schmatte,' the Yiddish word for rag, the conservancy said in court papers.
Rosen, also a collector of modern and contemporary art, has not said if he'd let the Picasso return to its old spot if it is removed. He did not respond to requests for an interview.
Both sides have dispatched engineers and experts to view the wall, with only those sent by Rosen finding its state alarming.
Yet even an art mover retained by Rosen conceded the curtain could "crack like a potato chip," the conservancy said.
The city afforded the Seagram Building and the Four Seasons interior landmark status in 1989, although the Picasso is explicitly excluded from that protected designation.
Rosen's lawyers say he has no obligation to indefinitely house someone else's painting in his building.
Judge Carol Edmead said that, before ruling, she needs to hear expert testimony on April 30 on whether it is necessary to move the curtain, which was painted by Pablo Picasso in 1919 for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes production of "Le Tricorne."
"The best part is all of a sudden everyone's paying attention to it," said Julian Niccolini, a co-owner of the Four Seasons, adding that he was not taking sides.
(Editing by Gunna Dickson)