Grossman LLP | The Met Faces Litigation Regarding Nazi-Era Art
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  • The Met Faces Litigation Regarding Nazi-Era Art
    Litigation involving art displaced during World War II—and with it the continued focus on the need for adequate pre-acquisition due diligence—is in the news again with the recent filing of complaint against the Metropolitan Museum of Art regarding Pablo Picasso’s The Actor.  See Estate of Leffman v. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 16-cv-7665 (S.D.N.Y.).

    The complaint alleges that Paul Leffman, the former owner of the painting, was forced to sell his home and businesses in Germany before fleeing to Italy with his wife in 1937.  In 1938, Mr. Leffman allegedly sold the painting “under duress” to Paris art dealers to flee to Switzerland when conditions in Italy worsened.  The work was eventually donated to the Met in 1952, where it has been on display ever since.  The complaint contends that due Mr. Leffman’s state of duress at the time of the sale, law and public policy mandate that good title never passed from Leffman to the Paris art dealers.  Thus, the subsequent owners—including the Met—never acquired good title to the work, which should remain property of the Leffman estate.

    The complaint further alleges that the Met accepted the donation with “no questions asked,” even though it “should reasonably have known” about Leffman’s ownership and the circumstances under which he was forced to dispose of the painting.  The Met, it is alleged, previously published erroneous provenance from 1967-2010, stating that the work was part of a “German private collection” from 1912-1938, instead of being owned by Mr. Leffman.  According to the complaint, this incorrect provenance “underscores” the lack of diligence that the Met undertook in accepting the painting.  The estate originally demanded the return of the painting in 2010, but the Met has refused.  The parties entered into several tolling agreements, which expired last week, coinciding with the Estate’s filing of the complaint.

    The Met has denied there are grounds for Zuckerman’s claims stating that “[w]hile the Met understands and sympathizes deeply with the losses that Paul and Alice Leffman endured during the Nazi era, it firmly believes that this painting was not among them—and that the Met has indisputable title to The Actor—which it will vigorously defend.”   Whether the Met is able to overcome the estate’s claims, this case will be serve as yet another reminder concerning the necessity of appropriate due diligence—no matter who the parties—in connection with the acquisition of artwork.