New York's Met can keep Picasso sold during Nazi flight: judge

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit seeking the return by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan of a Pablo Picasso masterpiece that a German Jewish businessman was allegedly forced to sell at a low price, to fund an escape from the Nazis and fascism.

U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska in Manhattan said the great-grandniece of Paul Leffmann, who once owned Picasso’s “The Actor,” could not show under New York law that he sold the painting under “duress,” justifying its return to her family.

The great-grandniece, Laurel Zuckerman, who oversees the estate of Leffmann’s wife Alice, had alternatively sought more than $100 million of damages over “The Actor,” from Picasso’s Rose Period in 1904 and 1905.

“Our client is very disappointed with the decision and intends to appeal,” Zuckerman’s lawyer, Lawrence Kaye, said in an email.

In a statement, the museum said the decision confirmed it is the Picasso’s “rightful owner.” It also said it “considers all Nazi-era claims thoroughly and responsibly,” and has returned objects that appeared to have been misappropriated.

Many lawsuits seek to reclaim art taken or sold after Adolf Hitler took power in Germany in 1933.

Zuckerman said the Leffmanns fled Germany for Italy in 1937, and Paul Leffmann sold “The Actor” the next year to two art dealers for $12,000 to fund an escape to Switzerland from the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, a Hitler ally.

The Met acquired “The Actor” in a 1952 donation, but did not acknowledge Leffmann’s ownership until 2011, after decades of incorrect cataloguing, the lawsuit said.

Zuckerman said the circumstances of the 1938 sale meant her family never lost title. The Met disagreed, while expressing sympathy for the Leffmanns’ plight.

In her 50-page decision, Preska said the sale “occurred between private individuals, not at the command of the Fascist or Nazi governments,” and not because of a “wrongful threat” by the buyers that took away Leffmann’s free will.

“Although the Leffmanns felt economic pressure during the undeniably horrific circumstances of the Nazi and Fascist regimes,” Preska wrote, “that pressure, when not caused by the counterparties to the transaction (or the defendant) where the duress is alleged, is insufficient to prove duress with respect to the transaction.”

“The Actor” depicts a tall, gaunt male figure gesturing with his right hand. The Met calls it a “simple yet haunting” work heralding Picasso’s move toward “the theatrical world of acrobats and saltimbanques.”

In January 2010, an art student lost her balance and fell into the painting. The resulting six-inch (15 cm) tear was repaired.

The case is Zuckerman v Metropolitan Museum of Art, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 16-07665.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown