MANHATTAN (CN) — A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the Metropolitan Museum of Art need not return a $100 million Picasso painting to a family who claimed their ancestors sold “The Actor” under duress as they fled Nazi-occupied Europe.
Laurel Zuckerman sued the Met as the grand-niece of Alice and Paul Leffmann. The Leffmanns bought “The Actor” in 1912 while living in Germany. Picasso painted it in 1904-1905, at the transition from his Blue to Rose periods. It is considered a significant work.
After Hitler’s rise to power, the Leffmanns were forced to sell their rubber manufacturing company, Atlantic Gummiwerk, to get the money to escape Germany. They sent “The Actor” for safe-keeping to a friend in Switzerland in 1936, to keep it from being seized by the Nazis.
The Leffmanns fled Germany to Italy in 1937, but exit permits, travel and other documents cost a lot of money, and they had to flee the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini as well. To raise the money to save their lives, they sold the oil-on-canvas painting an art dealer in 1938 for U.S. $12,000, a price “well below its actual value,” according to Senior U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska’s 50-page ruling. (The price was $13,200, minus the art dealer’s 10 percent commission.)
Three years later, the art dealer sold “The Actor” for $22,500 to a member of the Chrysler family, the auto magnates, who eventually donated the painting to the Met in 1952.
The elderly Leffmanns fled to Switzerland, then to Brazil, and returned to Switzerland after the war ended.
Their grand-niece’s attorneys demanded that the Met return the artwork to the estate in 2010, but the museum refused. So Zuckerman sued the Met, saying the Leffmanns’ 1938 sale was void for duress under Italian law. She sought the painting and/or $100 million in damages.
But Preska granted the Met’s motion to dismiss Wednesday, finding that Zuckerman failed to allege duress under the standards of New York law or Italian law, which are similar. She found that the 1938 transaction “occurred between private individuals, not at the command of the Fascist or Nazi governments.”
Preska also ruled that Zuckerman’s evidence of duress did not demonstrate “a specific and concrete threat of harm, beyond the generic indiscriminate persecutions of fascism.”
“Although the Leffmanns felt economic pressure during the undeniably horrific circumstances of the Nazi and Fascist regimes, that pressure, when not caused by the counterparties to the transaction (or the defendant) where the duress is alleged, is insufficient to prove duress with respect to the transaction.”
“The Actor,” which depicts a tall, hunched-over acrobat gesturing with his hand, is on display at the Met. Its estimated value is $100 million.