The descendant of a German-Jewish businessman who sold a Picasso to fund his escape from the Nazis in 1938 has lost her appeal to get it back.
Paul Leffmann left Germany for Italy in 1937 and sold ‘The Actor’ by Pablo Picasso for $12,000 a year later, in order to fund his move from Italy to Switzerland. At the time, Italy was ruled by Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship.
The painting now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it was donated in 1952, and this week Leffman’s great-grandniece, Laurel Zuckerman, finally lost her nine-year legal bid for it.
Zuckerman, who is the executor of the estate of Leffman’s wife, sued for $100 million but the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan on Wednesday turned her down, ruling that it would be unfair to ask the museum to give it up.
Lawyers for Zuckerman had argued that the price Leffman got from the two art dealers he sold the painting to in 1938 was unusually low, and argued that the circumstances of the sale meant that the family never lost title to it.
However the court disagreed and upheld the earlier decision of the US District Court in Manhattan in February last year. It found that Zuckerman had not adequately shown that Leffman sold the masterpiece under duress, which would have mandated its return to the family.
The judge ruled that 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, 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.”