MANHATTAN (CN) – Keeping a $100 million Picasso right where it is, the Second Circuit ruled Wednesday that a Holocaust survivor’s heir waited too long to file claims against the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Based on the unusual circumstances presented by the complaint, we conclude that the Met has been prejudiced by the more than six decades that have elapsed since the end of World War II,” Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Katzmann wrote for a three-judge panel. “This time interval has resulted in ‘deceased witnesses, faded memories … and hearsay testimony of questionable value,’ as well as the likely disappearance of documentary evidence.”
As recounted in the ruling, Alice and Paul Leffmann bought Picasso’s “The Actor” in 1912 while living in Germany.
A 6-foot-tall oil painting on canvas, the Met notes that Picasso painted “The Actor” in 1904-05, at the transition from his Blue to Rose periods.
The Leffmanns were German Jews, however, and forced to flee Germany following Hitler’s rise to power in 1937. In addition to selling their rubber-manufacturing company, Atlantic Gummiwerk, the couple entrusted their Picasso to a friend in Switzerland. They arrived first in Italy but had to flee from there too in 1938 as the influence of Nazi Germany spread. Needing money to get to Switzerland, the Leffmans sold “The Actor” to an art dealer in Paris for U.S. $12,000.
That dealer then sold the piece three years later for $22,500 to Thelma Chrysler Foy, the daughter of Chrysler auto magnate Walter Chrysler, who eventually donated the painting to the Met in 1952.
Having only been able to procure a temporary Swiss residence visa meanwhile, the elderly Leffmanns bribed their way into Brazil in 1941. They stayed there through the end of the war but lived out the rest of their lives in Switzerland.
Judge Katzmann notes that the couple filed a number of successful claims for Nazi-era losses before their deaths (Paul in 1956, and Alice in 1966), but made no effort to reclaim the Picasso.
The Met first received a demand from one of the Leffmanns’ heir in 2010. When the museum refused, Laurel Zuckerman, the couple’s great-grandniece, filed suit in 2016, alleging that the 1938 sale was void for duress.
U.S. District Loretta Preska ruled in favor of the Met last year, however, finding that the 1938 transaction “occurred between private individuals, not at the command of the Fascist or Nazi governments.”
The Second Circuit affirmed that decision Wednesday, calling the delay in Zuckerman’s claim unreasonable.
“It is eminently understandable that the Leffmanns did not bring any claim for the painting during the course of World War II and even, perhaps, for a few years thereafter, given their specific circumstances,” Katzmann wrote. “However, it is simply not plausible that the Leffmanns and their heirs would not have been able to seek replevin of the painting prior to 2010.”
Referring to the Leffmanns as “a financially sophisticated couple,” Katzmann emphasized that “this is not a case where the identity of the buyer was unknown to the seller or the lost property was difficult to locate.”
“Indeed, the painting was a ‘masterwork’ of Picasso, not an obscure piece of art,” the opinion states. “Nor is this a case where the plaintiff alleges that the buyers themselves exerted any undue or improper pressure on the sellers. … Since at least 1967, ‘P. Leffmann’ has been listed as a prior owner of the painting. Although that — concededly incomplete — provenance was included in the Met’s published catalogue, none of the Leffmanns’ heirs demanded that the painting be returned.”
U.S. Circuit Judges Debra Livingston and Christopher Droney concurred.
The Met welcomed the Second Circuit’s ruling.
“This wonderful painting was a gift to the Museum, and it is our responsibility and joy to share it with the widest possible audience,” a representative for the museum said in a statement. “The Met considers all Nazi-era claims thoroughly and responsibly, and has restituted objects when evidence indicates that they were unlawfully appropriated during the Nazi era, which is not the case here.”
Zuckerman was represented by Herrick Feinstein. No representative for the law firm has responded to a request for comment.