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Met in dispute over ownership of Picasso masterpiece Dispute over ownership of rare Picasso painting - The estate of a German Jewish businessman has launched a lawsuit against New York’s Metropolitan Museum disputing ownership of a Picasso masterpiece. Full view

The estate of a German Jewish businessman has launched a lawsuit against New York’s Metropolitan Museum disputing ownership of a Picasso masterpiece.

Met in dispute over ownership of Picasso masterpiece

Picasso dispute

A dispute over who owns a valuable Picasso lies at the heart of a lawsuit that will bring Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to court as it is sued for the return of a rare work by the famous Spanish artist. Known as ‘The Actor’ and painted in the artist’s so-called Rose Period at the turn of the 20th century, the picture has been housed at the museum since the 1950s.

However, the estate of a German Jewish businessman is contesting ownership of the piece, arguing that former owner Paul Leffmann was forced to sell it cheaply, along with this home and other assets in Cologne, after fleeing the Nazis for Brazil in 1937. The lawsuit claims that sale was made under duress for just $13,200.

A lively history

The painting was subsequently bought by Thelma Chrysler Foy via a New York gallery in 1941, for the sum of $22,500. She later donated it to the Met, where it has since been continuously on display. The complaint alleges that the museum didn’t properly investigate its provenance, until 2011, when it acknowledged Leffmann’s ownership and sale.

Some pieces of art that were sold in extremis during the 1930s and 1940s have since been returned to their former owners, and the Leffmann’s lawyer believes the painting should be given back under the same rules.

‘We believe the painting is tainted by the history of the Holocaust, and the Leffmanns, given the circumstances under which they sold it, never lost title,’ he said.

The Met has countered that it has ‘indisputable title’ to the artwork and that its research ‘makes clear’ that Nazi persecution did not result in the sale, in part because Leffmann sold ‘The Actor’ at a fair price in Paris and kept the proceeds.

Worth arguing over

The painting has been valued by lawyers for the estate at more than $100 million. The argument has rumbled on for several years, according to the lawyers but has never been settled.

Their case rests on the assertion by the Leffmanns that the couple would still own the painting had it not been for Nazi persecution. The Met, in turn, argues that the amount the Leffmanns received was ‘a higher price than any other early Picasso sold by a collector to a dealer during the 1930s.’

‘The Actor’ attracted media coverage in January 2010 when an art student tripped and fell into the canvas, causing a six-inch tear. The painting was repaired.

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Written by Diane Nowell