Yesterday, Judge Preska dismissed a suit seeking to reclaim Picasso’s “The Actor” from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The suit alleged that the painting was sold under duress in the 1930s after its owner at the time, a German Jew, fled the Nazi regime (see our original coverage here).  While the opinion details the plight of the Leffmann family as they fled from Germany to Italy, Switzerland, and eventually Brazil to escape the Nazis, ultimately, the complaint did not adequately allege a claim against the Met.

Key to Judge Preska’s decision was whether the duress could be attributed to the Met.  Under Italian law, Judge Preska found plaintiff’s claim that the “circumstances” in 1930s Fascist Italy were not the “specific and concrete threat of harm” required by Italian law.  The complaint also could not show that actions by the defendant (the Met) caused the duress, as required under New York law:

Plaintiff does not plead that [] the negotiator and purchasers on the other side of the Leffmann transaction, or the Museum used “wrongful” or “threatening conduct . . . outside [their] legal rights” in effectuating the 1938 sale.  Rather, Plaintiff states that “but for the Nazi and Fascist persecution to which [the Leffmanns] had been . . . subjected,” they “would not have disposed of this seminal work at that time.”  Effectively, Plaintiff claims that the “circumstances in Fascist Italy,” not the counterparties to the 1938 transaction or the Museum, forced the Leffmanns to sell the Painting under duress.  However, the 1938 transaction occurred between private individuals, not at the command of the Fascist or Nazi governments . . . . Thus, although the Leffmanns felt economic pressure during the undeniably horrific circumstances of the Nazi and Fascist regimes, that pressure, when not caused by the counterparties to the transaction (or the Defendant) where the duress is alleged, is insufficient to prove duress with respect to the transaction.

While Judge Preska engaged in a choice of law analysis and determined that New York law applied to the 1938 transaction, the claims were found to be insufficient under either Italian or New York law.