In 2018, the US District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed as legally inadequate a case brought by the heirs of Nazi victim Paul Leffmann against The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to recover an iconic oil painting by Pablo Picasso titled The Actor (1904-05). The court ruled that the heirs’ claim that the work was sold under duress was inadequate because a third party—the Nazi government and not the art dealers who bought the painting from Leffmann or the museum—was the source of the duress. The court’s decision runs counter to bedrock, current US government policy to return art to victims of Nazi persecution who lost them in forced sales. The ruling also disavows an international consensus that increasingly restitutes to the original owners works that were sold at auction or privately as a result of Nazi economic coercion.
In its opinion, the court recounted the Leffmanns’ tragic plight, as set forth in their complaint. Economically ravaged by Nazi policies against Jews in Germany, in 1937 Paul and Alice Leffmann fled to Italy, where Nazi and Fascist policies were rapidly encroaching. Desperate to escape to Switzerland, Paul Leffmann sold the Picasso painting in 1938 to the art dealer Kate Perls, who was acting on behalf of Hugo Perls and Paul Rosenberg, for $12,000 including commission. The American collector Thelma Chrysler Foy bought the painting in 1941 for $22,500, and donated it to the museum in 1952.
Notwithstanding the admittedly acute coercive conditions under which Leffmann sold the painting, which Nazi policies indisputably caused, the court ruled that the heirs’ claim was deficient as a matter of law. The court believed that it was “critically” important under New York law that a defendant (in this case the Metropolitan Museum) must have caused the duress.
Experienced Holocaust art restitution counsel have advised me that New York law—like every other US jurisdiction—does in fact expressly recognise that third party duress provides a legal basis for voiding a contract under the circumstances faced by the Leffmanns. Moreover, the court improperly minimised the actual fear the Leffmanns experienced under the Nazi and Fascist regimes, which spurred the sale of the painting. In addition, the court’s ruling defies an increasing international agreement that art lost in private sales due to Nazi persecution must be returned to the rightful owners, as reported in many recent articles. This all manifests the anomaly of the court’s decision.