The descendants of a German Jewish businessman who sold a Picasso to finance his family's escape from Nazi-controlled Europe are suing the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the return of the painting.
On Friday, Laurel Zuckerman filed the $100 million suit on behalf of her great-grandparents, Paul and Alice Leffmann. Zuckerman, who learned about the painting in 2010, had reportedly tried to negotiate with the Met for several years but had never been able to reach a settlement. Until 2011, the Met incorrectly claimed that Leffmann sold the painting to an unnamed German businessman, who then sold the painting again in 1938.
Court papers say Leffmann sold his home and business in Cologne, Germany before fleeing to Italy with his wife in 1937. The Leffmanns later left Italy for Switzerland, and eventually fled to Brazil—before leaving Europe in 1938, they sold The Actor, an incredibly rare work from Picasso's Rose Period, to Paris-based art dealers Hugo Perls and Paul Rosenberg.
In 1941, automobile heiress Thelma Chrysler Foy purchased the painting through the Knoedler Gallery for $22,500—the suit claims this price is evidence that Leffmann sold the painting at a steep discount. In 1952, Chrysler Foy donated The Actor to the Met. It is now one of the museum's most valuable Picassos. A description of the painting on the museum's website briefly name-drops Leffmann, but doesn't mention the conditions under which he sold the painting.
According to the Times, the suit alleges that the Met "did not disclose or should have known that the painting had been owned by a Jewish refugee, Paul Leffmann, who had disposed of the work only because of Nazi and Fascist persecution."
But the museum claims their research makes it clear that the sale was not a result of Nazi persecution, particularly since the Leffmanns tried to reclaim property they had been forced to sell but did not make a claim on the painting.
"While the Met 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—and that tThe Met has indisputable title to The Actor—which it will vigorously defend." museum representatives said in a statement.