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New York art museum sued for return of Picasso

October 1, 2016

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has been sued by relatives of a German Jewish industrialist who once owned Picasso's "The Actor." It was allegedly sold "under duress" in 1938.

New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
Image: picture-alliance/newscom/A. Jenny

The complaint was filed by the great-grandniece of Paul Leffmann, a Jewish industrialist from Germany, who once owned "The Actor," from Picasso's Rose Period in 1904 and 1905.

Laurel Zuckerman, who handles estate matters for Leffmann's widow Alice, is alternatively seeking more than $100 million (88.9 million euros) in damages, claiming the museum did not hold good title to the painting because of the forced sale.

"We believe the painting is tainted by the history of the Holocaust, and the Leffmanns, given the circumstances under which they sold it, never lost title," Lawrence Kaye, a lawyer for Zuckerman, said.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan "did not disclose or should have known that the painting had been owned by a Jewish refugee, Paul Leffmann, who had disposed of the work only because of Nazi and Fascist persecution," the suit alleges.

In a statement, the Met said it had "indisputable title" to "The Actor" and would defend its rights. It claimed the amount received was "a higher price than any other early Picasso sold by a collector to a dealer during the 1930s."

Zuckerman said Paul Leffmann sold "The Actor" to two art dealers in June 1938 for $12,000 to fund an escape to Switzerland from Benito Mussolini's regime in Italy. Leffmann had to sell his home and businesses in Cologne, Germany, before he fled with his wife, Alice, to Italy in 1937. German Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had made it clear that Jews in Italy were in danger, and this caused Leffmann to sell the painting, as there was "no time left" to act, according to the complaint.

The Leffmanns left Italy for Switzerland before going to Brazil. 

Bought in New York

In 1941, Thelma Chrysler Fox bought the painting via a New York gallery for $22,500. This will be used as evidence that the sale in 1938 was at a discount. Fox donated the work to the Met in 1952, where it has been continuously displayed ever since. The lawyers consider the work to be worth more than $100 million.

Zuckerman had learned about the painting in 2010 and demanded its return from the museum. The lawyers claimed they had been given an erroneous provenance, indicating it had been owned by an unnamed German private collector until 1938 and the Met only corrected the information in 2011.

"While the Met understands and sympathizes deeply with the losses that Paul and Alice Leffmann endured during the Nazi era, it firmly believes that this painting was not among them," the museum said.

An agreement putting the case on hold expired on Friday.

jm/jlw (Reuters)