Estate of Family Who Fled Nazi Germany Sues Met For Return of Picasso Allegedly Sold Under Duress

The estate of a family who fled Nazi Germany recently sued the Met Museum in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, claiming that it was the rightful owner of a work by Pablo Picasso titled “The Actor.”

According to the complaint in Zuckerman v. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Paul Friedrich Leffmann, a successful and wealthy businessman from Cologne, Germany, purchased the work in 1912.  After Germany’s Nazi regime implemented the Nuremberg Laws, the Leffmanns were forced to emigrate to Italy in 1937.  There, according to the complaint, they faced the same kind of persecution they suffered in Germany.  The plaintiffs further alleged that, due to the discriminatory and confiscatory laws in Italy, and the regulatory barriers associated with fleeing to countries such as Switzerland and Brazil, Lefmann, sold the Work under duress at a deep discount in 1938.  After the Work changed hands at least two more times, the Work was donated to the Met in 1952.

According to the complaint, the Met either knew and failed to disclose; or should have known that the Work had been owned by a Jewish refugee who only disposed the Work under duress because of Nazi and Fascist persecution.  In support of this allegation, the plaintiff cited, among other things, State Department efforts to warn museums, libraries, art dealers, and others to use vigilance in identifying “cultural objects with provenances tainted by World War II.”  The plaintiff also alleges that the Met published an inaccurate provenance for the Work, which indicated that Leffmann sold the Work much earlier than 1938.

According to news reports on the case, the Met is expected to argue that Leffmann actually sold the Work at market value in 1938 and was therefore, not a sale under duress.  The Met is also expected to argue that inaccuracies in the Work’s provenance were based on a former buyer’s inaccurate recollection rather than anything nefarious.

It will be interesting to see how Zuckerman unfolds.  There is no denying that the Nazi regime looted art and that many sales were made under duress.  One question is whether a valuation analysis can shed light on the issue of whether this Work was sold at the then value or under duress.  Watch this space.

Thanks to Mike Gauvin for his contribution to this post.  For more information, please email Dennis Wade at dwade@wcmlaw.com.