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Pablo Picasso, The Actor, 1904-05. Photo: The Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Metropolitan Museum to Keep Picasso Painting Sold by Collector Fleeing Nazis

Pablo Picasso’s The Actor, 1904–05, will remain at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after a New York court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Laurel Zuckerman, the heir of a Jewish collector who sold the painting while escaping Nazi persecution in 1938. The work is from Picasso’s Rose Period, when the artist focused on painting actors and circus performers. According to the New York dealer David Norman, the value of the piece could easily surpass Picasso’s auction record of $180 million.

Zuckerman is the great-grandniece of Paul Freidrich Leffmann, who sold the artwork at below-market price after fleeing from Germany to Italy with his wife, Alice. While in Italy, they accepted $13,200 for the painting in order to pay for their expenses to travel to Switzerland and then to Brazil. The American socialite Thelma Chrysler Foy purchased the painting in New York a few years later and then gifted it to the Met in 1952.

Much of Judge Loretta Preska’s ruling comes down to the interpretation of “force” or “duress.” She stated that the exchange between Leffmann and the buyer “occurred between private individuals, not at the command of the Fascist or Nazi governments.” Even though she recognized that “the Leffmanns felt economic pressure during the undeniably horrific circumstances of the Nazi and Fascist regimes,” Judge Preska ultimately ruled in favor of the Met because “the fact that the Leffmanns spent several years looking to sell the painting, rejected other offers, and had additional assets including properties in Italy that they sold to an Italian businessman in 1937, suggests that they had other financial alternatives.”

In response to the ruling, the museum told Bloomberg that “The Met welcomes the court’s thorough and well-reasoned decision dismissing the plaintiff’s claim to Picasso’s The Actor, which has been an important part of the museum’s collection since 1952.”

Zuckerman was seeking $100 million for the painting. She also wanted the provenance information of the piece updated to reflect that that the family’s estate was the exclusive owner of The Actor. Her estate attorney, Lawrence Kaye, said that she was incredibly disappointed by the ruling and is planning to appeal.

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