A court battle is again being waged by heirs to a family that once owned Picasso's acclaimed "The Actor" that's been hanging in the Met since it was donated in 1952. Descendants of Alice and Paul Friedrich Leffmann, of Cologne, contend that their forebearers sold the painting under duress to escape Nazism: "You either sell or face an unspeakable fate." The museum insists that the work is a legal holding.

Here comes the judge

In February, U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Preska sided with the museum, ruling that the Nazis never seized the work - the legal test for duress in New York.

Supporting the Leffmann heirs, the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Human Rights argued that the sale of art belonging to Jews under the Nazi siege should not be deemed as an everyday transaction. The Leffmann couple felt compelled to let “The Actor” go for $13,200, far below market value. The painting ended up in a New York gallery and sold for $22,500 to an American collector who donated it to the Met. The museum has a good reason for wanting to keep the painting; it's a rare Picasso rendered in his Rose Period when he was a happy 23-year-old given to using warm colors. Reportedly it's one of his ten most popular works and is valued at $1 million.

A familiar story

If this story about Jewish collectors seeking to reclaim art lost during WWII seems familiar, it's probably because such lawsuits occur so regularly, and in several cases, the courts have ruled in favor of the collectors.

I'm thinking of Maria Ackermann, niece of Viennese collector Adele Block-Bauer, who sued the Austrian government for the return of Gustave Klimt's portrait of her aunt. You may remember a 2015 movie made about the lawsuit - “Woman in Gold” starring Helen Mirren as Altmann. The Nazis appropriated the painting and the Austrian government refused to return it until Altmann won restitution after a hard-fought battle.

Doing the right thing

Hitler's storm troopers seized a massive amount of art. The Jewish Virtual Library reports a hoard of thousands. Owing to court rulings, some 700,00 artworks like “The Woman in Gold” have gone back to their rightful owners. But many continue to hang in leading museums like the Met. To the credit of the National Gallery in England, a still life by 17th-century Flemish master Frans Synder was returned to a French Jewish family.

Why don't other museums do this? Probably for the same reason that the Met holds on to its Picasso. Revenue. The art is masterful, which makes it a visitor draw. And in the case of “The Actor,” there aren't too many cheerful works of his around. That said, it's not like the Met would go without if they returned “The Actor” to the Leffmann family. The treasure house, holding more than two million artworks, already boasts a Picasso of its own, the iconic portrait of Gertrude Stein.

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