The Metropolitan Museum of Art will be able to keep one of its most famous Pablo Picasso paintings after a federal judge threw out a lawsuit by the estate of a German businessman who was seeking to recover the work that he was forced to sell at a discount while fleeing the Nazis.
"The Actor" is a highlight of the museum’s second-floor galleries showing 19th and early 20th century European paintings and sculptures. The work depicts a young man on stage, clad in pastel-pink costume with blue accessories. The subject’s pale, gaunt face and an exaggerated hand gesture evoke the artist El Greco.
A federal judge in New York on Wednesday granted the museum’s request to throw out the suit by the estate of Alice and Paul Leffmann, who sold the work for $13,200 in 1938 in order to raise money to leave Italy. The couple had moved there to flee the Nazis in Germany, but they were forced to sell the painting when it became too dangerous for them to stay.
"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," the museum said in an email. Lawrence Kaye, an attorney for the estate, said his client is very disappointed by the ruling and intends to appeal.
The painting was bought from the Leffmanns by a pair of art dealers, one of whom loaned the work to the Museum of Modern Art the following year. The work was then sold for $22,500 in 1941 to Thelma Chrysler Foy, an automobile heiress and collector, who donated it to the Met, where it has remained ever since.
The Met refused to hand over the painting after the Leffmanns’ estate demanded its return in 2010 and sued in 2016, asking a court to force the museum to surrender the art and award it $100 million in damages.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska refused to void the contract for the painting’s 1938 sale. Although the Leffmanns were under economic pressure during “the undeniably horrific circumstances of the Nazi and Fascist regimes,” she said that wasn’t enough to prove the estate’s legal claim of duress because it wasn’t the counterparties to the sale or the museum that pressured the Leffmanns to sell.
The work was painted early during Picasso’s Rose Period, according to David Norman, an Impressionist and modern art dealer in New York. The somber mood of the artist’s Blue Period, during which he was obsessed with the poor and dispossessed, lightened to give way to the Rose Period, when Picasso became focused on actors and circus performers.
In the current art market, the value for the work could easily rival the current Picasso auction record of just shy of $180 million, Norman said.
“When people walk through those galleries, that work is so commanding, its absence would have been deeply felt,” Norman said.
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