MANHATTAN (CN) — After a five-year standoff, the survivor of a German Jewish World War II refugee sued the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $100 million, in a fight over a 1905 Picasso painting.
Laurel Zuckerman, great-grandniece of Paul and Alice Leffmann, says her uncle owned the “monumental” oil painting “The Actor” — 77 by 44 inches — from 1912 until he sold it under duress in 1938.
In her Sept. 30 complaint in Federal Court, Zuckerman says the Leffmann family surrendered their home, business and assets to German corporations between 1935 and 1937 under the Nazi process of “Aryanization,” or Arisierung. Paul Leffmann was forced to surrender his ownership of Atlantic Gummiwerk, a rubber manufacturing company, to a non-Jewish minority partner.
The family emigrated to Italy in the spring of 1937. After Hitler’s visit to Florence in May 1938, and increasingly harsh anti-Jewish laws in Italy, the Leffmanns accepted a lowball offer of $13,200 for the Picasso painting, then fled to Switzerland in October 1938.
They escaped wartime Europe in 1941, emigrating to Rio de Janeiro.
The painting was donated to the museum in 1952 by the daughter of Chrysler Corp. founder Walter Chrysler Thelma, Chrysler Foy, who’d bought the painting from the Knoedler Gallery for $22,500 in 1941, according to the complaint.
Zuckerman says the provenance of the painting failed to include that it was owned by the Leffmann family continuously from 1912 until 1938, listing only a “private German collection” during those years.
The Met’s collection records state that the original owner of “The Actor” was wealthy Franco-American painter and friend of Picasso, Frank Burty Haviland. The Met’s provenance records mention Paul Leffmann, saying the painting was “first exhibited in the Sonderbund show in Cologne in May 1912, to which it was lent by Paul Leffmann, a German industrialist. In 1938, Leffmann sold it to Picasso’s dealer Paul Rosenberg and long-time Picasso collector Hugo Perls.”
Zuckerman says that during a museum investigation in the early 1950s, Perls was unable to remember from whom he had purchased “The Actor,” only that it was “a German professor” in Solothurn, Switzerland, who had been “thrown out by Nazis.”
The museum refused the Leffmann family’s demand for return of the painting in September 2010.
On Feb. 7, 2011, they entered a standstill agreement tolling the statute of limitations, which was amended several times, finally terminating on Sept. 30 this year.
Representatives from the Metropolitan Museum of Art did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon.
The Estate of Alice Leffmann is represented by Lawrence Kaye with Herrick Feinstein in Manhattan. Zuckerman demands the painting or $100 million.
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