Zuckerman v. The Metropolitan Museum Of Art

307 F.Supp.3d 304 (2018)


P, the great-grandniece of Paul and Alice Leffmann, received Ancillary Letters of Administration CTA for the estate of Alice Leffmann from the Surrogate's Court of the State of New York, New York County, on October 18, 2010. In 1937, the Leffmanns fled from Germany to Italy in fear for their lives, after losing their business, livelihood, home, and most of their possessions due to Nazi persecution. In 1938, while living in Italy, the Leffmanns sold the Painting at a price well below its actual value in an effort to gather enough money to pay for passage out of Italy, which itself had become a perilous place for the Leffmanns to remain. The Museum (D) received the Painting as a donation in 1952 and has possessed it since that time. P seeks replevin of the Painting, $100 million in damages for conversion, and a declaratory judgment declaring the Leffmann estate as the sole owner of the Painting on the grounds that good title never passed to D because the 1938 sale of the Painting was void for duress under Italian law. Ds move to dismiss. The Leffmanns purchased the Painting. They lived in Cologne, Germany. They had sizeable assets. Adolf Hitler came to power, and racist laws directed against Jews were quickly enacted and enforced, leading to the adoption of the Nuremberg Laws. German Jews were deprived of the rights and privileges of German citizenship. The Leffmanns were forced to sell their assets. The Leffmans had arranged for The Actor to be held in Switzerland by a non-Jewish German acquaintance, Professor Heribert Reiners. Reiners kept The Actor in his family home in Fribourg, where it remained for its entire stay in Switzerland. The Leffmanns fled Germany Italy was one of the few European countries still allowing the immigration of German Jews. So that is where the Leffmanns went. Italy was becoming just as bad as Germany. Leffmann began to explore the possibility of selling his masterpiece, The Actor, with dealers in Paris. The events following the Austrian Anschluss and Hitler's visit to Italy in May 1938 confirmed that they would have had no choice but to turn whatever assets they still controlled into cash. In September 1936, after they had been forced by the Nazis to part with nearly everything they owned, the Leffmanns had rejected an offer to sell The Actor from the notorious art dealer, C.M. de Hauke of Jacques Seligmann & Co. (whom the U.S. State Department later identified as a trafficker in Nazi-looted art). On April 12, 1938, the Leffmanns, in an even more desperate state, reached out to de Hauke asking him if he would be interested in purchasing the Painting. De Hauke offered $12,000 (net of commission). The Leffmanns sold the Painting to Käte Perls' offer of U.S. $13,200 (U.S. $12,000 after a standard ten percent selling commission), who was acting on behalf of her ex-husband, Hugo Perls, also an art dealer, and art dealer Paul Rosenberg, with whom Perls was buying the Painting. On September 7, 1938, the first anti-Semitic racial laws were introduced in Italy. The Leffmann’s somehow got to Switzerland.  Everyone who dealt with the Jews at this time was taking their cut. Swiss authorities required emigrants to pay substantial sums through a complex system of taxes and 'deposits' (of which the emigrant had no expectation of recovery). They decided to get to Brazil who wanted their cut of $4,641. The Leffmanns were not able to return to Europe until after the War had ended. In 1947, they settled in Zurich, Switzerland. Paul died on May 4, 1956, and Alice died on June 25, 1966. After the purchase, art dealer Paul Rosenberg loaned the Painting to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1939. On November 14, 1941, M. Knoedler & Co. sold the Painting to Thelma Chrysler Foy ('Foy') for $22,500 (a difference of U.S. $9,300, or a 70 percent increase from the price paid to the Leffmanns). Thelma Chrysler Foy donated the Painting to D in 1952, where it remains today. The Museum accepted this donation. P sued D and D moved to dismiss.