Picasso masterpiece in ownership dispute
Ownership of a Picasso masterpiece is at the heart of a lawsuit that will be played out in public over the coming months. Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is being sued for the return of a rare work, known as ‘The Actor’ and credited to the artist’s so-called Rose Period at the turn of the 20th century.
The estate of a German Jewish businessman – Paul Lefferman – asserts that the museum does not hold good title to the painting because Lefferman was forced to sell it, along with this home and other assets in Cologne, at a knock-down price after fleeing the Nazis en route for Brazil in 1937. The lawsuit claims that sale was made under duress for just $13,200.
Thelma Chrysler Foy bought the painting via a New York gallery in 1941 for $22,500. She donated it to the Met ten years later, where it has been continuously displayed. According to the complaint, The Met didn’t properly investigate its provenance, until 2011, when it acknowledged Leffmann’s ownership and sale.
A lawyer for the estate said that European tribunals have ordered the return of artwork sold in extremis during the 1930s and 1940s, though less commonly in the United States.
‘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,’ he said.
However, The Met said in a statement that it has ‘indisputable title’ to the artwork and that its research ‘makes clear’ that Nazi persecution did not result in the sale, in part because Leffmann sold ‘The Actor’ at a fair price in Paris and kept the proceeds.
A $100-million-dollar dispute
Lawyers for the estate estimate the painting’s value at more than $100 million. They claim they have negotiated with the Met for several years, while the Met investigated the provenance, but had never been able to reach a settlement.
Lawyers for the Leffmanns assert that the couple would never have disposed of the work had they not been subjected to Nazi persecution, while The Met argues that the amount the Leffmanns received was ‘a higher price than any other early Picasso sold by a collector to a dealer during the 1930s.’
‘The Actor’ attracted media coverage in January 2010 when an art student tripped and fell into the canvas, causing a six-inch tear. The painting was repaired.
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