German Jewish businessman Paul Leffmann who in 1938 sold Picasso’s painting “The Actor” to two art dealers for $13,200 so he could escape from Nazi-allied Italy to neutral Switzerland with his wife, was not under duress, and therefore the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is allowed to hold on to the painting, a Federal judge ruled on Wednesday.
In what might be one of the most insensitive decisions regarding Jewish property appropriated between 1933 and 1945, Judge Loretta A. Preska, of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, ruled against Leffmann’s estate, arguing that “although the Leffmanns felt economic pressure during the undeniably horrific circumstances of the Nazi and Fascist regimes, 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.”
Meaning that since the Met itself did not send out its own thugs to bargain down terrified Jewish refugees out of their dwindling riches, it is OK for the museum to continue to display the million dollar artwork.
Actually, it’s $100 million, the amount Leffmann’s great-grandniece, Laurel Zuckerman, administrator of the estate, is demanding from the Met in damages, in addition to the painting.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art received the painting as a donation in 1952, but only in 2011 did it bother to mention that it used to be owned by a Jewish refugee from Germany.
The victorious Met issued a press release that was easily as brazen as the judge’s ruling: “As the court clearly explained, the painting was never in the hands of the Nazis and was never sold or transferred as a result of Nazi-era duress. It is now settled that the Met is the rightful owner of this painting, which will remain on public display for all to enjoy.”
Zuckerman’s lawyer, Lawrence Kaye, said: “Our client is very disappointed with the decision and intends to appeal.” As she well should, if only to force the Met, which relies on fat donations from Jewish patrons, to find the modicum of decency required from human beings.
Picasso’s “The Actor,” a 1904-5 oil-on-canvas painting, shows a skeletal man in a stage costume gesturing dramatically with his right hand. The Met described the work as “simple yet haunting.” Just like this tale of brazen thievery.