The New York Times has reported that the estate of a German businessman has sued the Metropolitan Museum of Art last Friday to claim one of its valuable Picassos, “The Actor” (1904-05), alleging in the court filing that the museum does not hold title to the painting because the businessman was forced to sell the work for a low amount after fleeing the Nazis in the late 1930s.  The treasured oil on canvas depicts an attenuated male figure making hand gestures that signaled the beginning of Picasso’s interest in “the theatrical world of acrobats and saltimbanques” during the artist’s Rose Period.  The painting is estimated to be worth more than $100 million said lawyers for the estate in the court filing.

In the court filing it is alleged that the museum “did not disclose or should have known that the painting had been owned by a Jewish refugee, Paul Leffmann, who had disposed of the work only because of Nazi and Fascist persecution.”  The lawsuit alleges that the sale of the painting was made under duress to a collector of Picasso’s work and Picasso’s dealer for $13,200 in 1938.  In 1941, Thelma Chrysler Foy bought the painting through a New York art gallery for $22,500 and eventually donated it to the Met in 1952 where the painting has been continuously displayed since.  The lawyers for the estate said that they had conducted negotiations with the Met while the claim was being investigated by the museum, but the parties had never been able to reach a settlement.

In a statement, the Met “strenuously denied there were grounds for the claim, asserting that the 1938 sale had been for fair market value and had not been made under duress.”  The museum added that the German businessman and his family did not make any claim on the painting after the war when trying to reclaim property they had been forced to sell.

The lawyers for the estate have criticized the museum claiming that for a number of years it had given an “erroneous provenance” for the painting until being corrected in 2011.  The Met indicated that the provenance was not erroneous as it was based on the recollection of the buyer at the time.  The provenance reflected that the painting was owned by a German in Switzerland and was updated as further information became available, according to the museum.

The suit is Zuckerman v. Metropolitan Museum of Art, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 16-07665.