By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A masterpiece painted by Pablo Picasso that a German Jewish businessman was allegedly forced to sell to fund his escape from the Nazis can stay at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York rather than be returned to the businessman’s heirs, a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said the great-grandniece of Paul Leffmann, who once owned Picasso’s “The Actor,” waited too long by not demanding the painting’s return until 2010, which was 72 years after it was sold and 58 years after it was donated to the Met.
Writing for a three-judge panel, Chief Judge Robert Katzmann recognized that the federal Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016 and other recent measures respected the need to provide “some measure of justice, albeit incomplete,” to victims of Nazi brutality and their heirs.
But he said it would be unfair for the Met to give up the Picasso to Leffmann’s great-grandniece, Laurel Zuckerman, given the “unreasonable” delay in demanding its return.
“This is not a case where the identity of the buyer was unknown to the seller or the lost property was difficult to locate,” Katzmann wrote. “The Met has been prejudiced by the more than six decades that have elapsed since the end of World War II.”
Zuckerman’s lawyer had no immediate comment. A lower court judge also sided with the Met in February 2018.
According to the complaint, Leffmann sold “The Actor” to a Paris art dealer for $12,000 to fund the escape by him and his wife to Switzerland from Italy, which was then led by Benito Mussolini, an ally of Adolf Hitler.
Zuckerman said the Met did not properly recognize Leffmann’s ownership until 2011, after decades of incorrect cataloguing.
A Met spokeswoman said the museum “considers all Nazi-era claims thoroughly and responsibly,” and has returned works that were unlawfully appropriated.
The Picasso was not such a work, she said, adding “and it is our responsibility and joy to share it with the widest possible audience.”
The 2016 federal law gives people six years to file claims after learning the whereabouts of artwork lost between 1933 and 1945 because of Nazi persecution.
Painted during Picasso’s “Rose Period” in 1904 and 1905, “The Actor” also made news in January 2010 when an art student lost her balance and fell into it. The resulting six-inch (15 cm) tear was repaired.
The case is Zuckerman v. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 18-634.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York, editing by G Crosse
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