The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan is facing a $100 million lawsuit for the return of a Pablo Picasso painting owned by a German Jewish industrialist living in Italy which he sold under duress in 1938 on the brink of World War II.
A great-grandniece of Paul Leffmann, who owned “The Actor,” from Picasso’s Rose Period in 1904 and 1905, filed the suit at the Manhattan Federal Court Friday.
Laurel Zuckerman, who handles the estate of Leffmann’s widow Alice, said he sold the painting for $12,000 to two art dealers in June 1938 while in Italy, where he and wife wife were living after fleeing Germany a year earlier. The money was to fund an escape to Switzerland from the Nazi-allied Mussolini regime.
The Leffmans settled in Zurich after the war and died in the city, the complaint noted.
The Met acquired “The Actor” in 1952 and said in a statement that it had an “indisputable title” to the painting and will defend its rights to it.
The suit claims that the Met failed for decades to investigate the origins of the piece, after in 2011 finally acknowledging Leffmann’s ownership and sale of the artwork.
Zuckerman had learned of the artwork in 2010 and demanded its return.
“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,” a lawyer for Zuckerman said in a statement to Reuters. The suit seeks the return of the painting or $100 million in compensation.
The Met said that while it “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,” arguing that Nazi persecution was not a factor in the sale.