01 October 2016

"The Actor," by Pablo Picaso

by Marc Masurovsky
The Actor, by Pablo Picasso.

Saturday morning, 1 October 2016, brought news of a restitution claim filed by the Leffmann family heirs against the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a painting by Pablo Picasso, “The Actor”, which is estimated to be worth 100 million dollars. According to Graham Bowley, writing for the New York Times, the Leffmann family left Cologne in 1937 and sought refuge in Italy, paying for their exit in part with the sale of the Picasso painting. The Leffmanns ended up in their new land of refuge, Brazil, not unlike other Jewish families plundered by the Nazis, like Hugo Simon.

The Leffmanns sold the painting to the Perls Gallery and Paul Rosenberg, both in Paris. At the time of the Leffmann sale, Hugo Perls  lived in Paris where he had emigrated in 1931, fearful of the inevitable rise to power of the Nazi movement in Germany. The Kaete Perls Gallery moved from Berlin to Paris. Hugo and his wife, Kaete, separated.  According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Kaethe Perls Gallery acted as an agent in the sale of the Leffmann Picasso in 1937. It indicates Hugo Perls, her estranged husband, and Paul Rosenberg, a renown Paris art dealer and collector, as jointly investing in the painting. 

Hugo and Kaete Perls, by Edvard Munch
Thelma Chrysler Foy

According to the New York Daily News, Cesar Monge de Hauke paid 12,000 dollars for “The Actor” but the journalist, Victoria Bekiempis, does not explain to whom de Hauke paid the sum and for whom he allegedly acquired the Picasso painting. One might assume that he had acted as a go-between for Knoedlers. At the time of the transaction, de Hauke was associated with Germain Seligmann, who operated a successful art gallery in New York. In the summer of 1940, de Hauke decided to strike gold on the wartime Paris art market by packing up his belongings in New York and moving to German-occupied Paris. However, this fact has no relevance on the bearings of the Leffmann claim.  The Metropolitan Museum's provenance of "The Actor" does not mention de Hauke.

In another odd journalistic claim regarding the history of the Leffmann family's escape to freedom, Reuters reported that the sale of the painting was to flee Benito Mussolini's Fascist Italy in June 1938! No kidding.. Should that be true, it would be odd since the racial anti-Jewish laws were not enacted until November 1938. Odd how history can get rewritten so quickly and in such a fangled manner!

Thelma Chrysler Foy, a daughter of Walter Chrysler, acquired “The Actor” through Knoedlers in 1941 and donated the Picasso work to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1952.

Of interest to us is the involvement of Perls and Rosenberg in the joint acquisition of the Leffmann painting in Paris. Whatever assets Hugo Perls had left behind in Germany, the Nazi government confiscated them. Paul Rosenberg, on the other hand, suffered the same fate two years later, fleeing the German blitzkrieg against Western Europe and seeking refuge in New York where many European Jewish collectors and dealers had also resumed their lives. His entire art collection was seized and many of its contents redistributed with glee among art dealers, brokers and collectors in the Paris art market.

One has to wonder in retrospect and with twenty-twenty hindsight—maybe unfairly—how much Rosenberg and Perls knew of the duress sales in Nazi Germany, how they viewed the acquisition of assets owned by persecuted Jews—ethical or unethical?—or did they simply look at the acquisition of “The Actor” by Pablo Picasso as just another business opportunity?

The post-WWII era inaugurated historic claims for restitution by men and women of Jewish descent, many of whom owned art collections, major or minor, who had been persecuted and plundered during the commission of an act of genocide. The claims were unprecedented in modern history but so was the crime which provoked them. It turns out that a number of post-war Jewish claimants acquired, wittingly or unwittingly, on the German art market, in Switzerland, or in the post-1945 era works and objects of art confiscated from other Jews or sold under duress to finance their escapes by paying excessive levies demanded by the Nazi government as toll fees to allow Jews to leave the Reich.

As is the case today, provenance seemed to have not counted for much in the decision to acquire plundered or confiscated objects. Ironies of history or simply standard operating procedure in the art market, regardless of who and what you are?

The emphasis placed on Perls and Rosenberg in the post-duress sale ownership history of the Leffmann Picasso is to underscore the fact that the art market and those involved in it often set history aside in order to acquire what they covet as part of their overall business activities. This was especially true in the inter-war period, the wartime years, and the decades following the end of WWII and the Holocaust.

This behavior is similar to what we experience nowadays with Native American artifacts looted from religious and sacred sites throughout North America and the acquisition of antiquities known to emerge from conflict zones in the Mideast and elsewhere.

No one is immune to such behavior, not even those who were persecuted.

The New York law firm of Herrick Feinstein is representing the Leffmann family in its bid to recover the Picasso painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.