$100 Million Lawsuit against Met over Picasso Masterpiece—and the 9 Other Biggest News Stories This Week

Artsy Editors
Sep 30, 2016 8:06PM

Catch up on the latest art news with our rundown of the 10 stories you need to know this week.

01  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been sued over a Picasso masterpiece in its collection, allegedly sold under duress by Jewish owners before World War II.

(via Reuters)

The complaint, filed Friday, centers around Picasso’s painting The Actor (1904–5), originally owned by Jewish industrialist Paul Leffmann. His great-grandniece alleges that the painting was sold in 1938 as Leffmann raised funds to flee persecution in Fascist Italy after already escaping Nazi Germany. The complaint details at great length the quasi-legal financial extortion and bureaucratic barriers that the Leffmanns faced in their quest to eventually reach the relative safety of Switzerland and later Brazil. To raise the funds necessary to escape Italy as it heightened cooperation with the Nazi regime, the complaint states that the Leffmanns were forced to sell The Actor for $12,000, “a price well below its actual value.” Indeed, the complaint notes the figures was $6,000 less than what the work was requested to be insured for when it was loaned to the Museum of Modern Art the next year. The complaint further states that the Leffmanns would not have sold the piece if not out of fear for their safety, and that they never transferred good title to the piece. Before it was donated to the Met in 1952, the painting was also sold through the now-defunct M. Knoedler & Co. Gallery. The plaintiff originally contacted the Met in 2010, but through mutual agreement a lawsuit was put on hold—until that deal ended this Friday. The lawsuit seeks the return of the work or, alternatively, damages in excess of $100 million. According to Reuters, the Met noted that its research “makes clear” that the work was not sold due to Nazi persecution and that the $12,000 figure was a fair price. “While the Met understands and sympathizes deeply with the losses that Paul and Alice Leffmann endured during the Nazi era, it firmly believes that this painting was not among them,” the statement said. The Actor also garnered attention six years ago when a visitor tripped and fell into the work, tearing the canvas (the piece was subsequently repaired).

02  Two missing paintings by Vincent van Gogh, swiped from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum in 2002, have been recovered by Italian police during a raid on a farmhouse connected to the Mafia.

(via the New York Times)

The two paintings, Seascape at Scheveningen (1882) and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884/85), are examples of van Gogh’s early work and were thought to be worth a total of $4.5 million when originally stolen. This discovery is part of a larger investigation into organized crime by a specialized group of Italian public prosecutors. Police uncovered the paintings while scouring a farmhouse in the Naples region linked to a clan of the Camorra family, infamous for its ties to the international cocaine trade. One expert labeled it a case of “art-napping”—a Mafia practice in which artworks are stolen and then used either as a form of payment within the family or, in the case of arrest, as leverage to get a reduced sentence. Although both paintings have sustained minor damage and are missing their frames, the museum said they are in better condition than expected. Both works will be used in forthcoming criminal cases, so their return to the museum has been delayed indefinitely. “We have been waiting for this moment for 14 years,” museum director Axel Rüger said. “And naturally the only thing you want is to take them straight home with you. But we will have to exercise a little bit more patience.”

03  Photographer Jock Sturges’s exhibition in Moscow was forced to close after attracting protests amid claims by nationalist Russian activists that his work contained child pornography.

(via The Moscow Times)

The exhibition of work by Sturges, “Absence of Shame,” opened on September 8th at The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography before the premature closure occurred this week. It featured images from a series focused on families living in nudist colonies in France, Northern California, and Ireland. Both the museum and Sturges himself vehemently deny the pornographic nature of the images; however, the gallery’s founders pulled the exhibition, citing ongoing security concerns (one protester went so far as to throw urine on one of the photographs). “Galleries and museums across the world haven’t seen these photos as pornography. It simply isn’t the case,” Sturges told the Russian network Ren TV in response to the controversy. Sturges, along with his contemporaries, like Sally Mann, whose photographs aim to capture adolescence and can feature children in the nude, are no strangers to controversy. In 1990, following complaints around the representation of nude children in Sturges’s work, his San Francisco studio was raided by the FBI and police; the investigation later fizzled and Sturges was never indicted.

04  The Armory Show has appointed Nicole Berry as deputy director, looking to channel her expertise into further cultivating a VIP collector base for the New York fair.

(via The Armory Show)

Berry, who will begin in mid-October, joins The Armory Show from EXPO CHICAGO, where she served as deputy director for the last five years. During that time, EXPO became an increasingly important event on the art-world calendar. In New York, Berry’s remit will involve a targeted cultivation of collectors across the globe, as well as assisting with new curatorial initiatives announced by the fair in April. Since joining the fair in January, executive director Benjamin Genocchio has cited developing a more robust VIP experience for collectors—including private viewing rooms and other perks—as a primary part of expanding and cementing The Armory Show’s role and reach. To this end, he noted that Berry “brings a wealth of talent and experience that will further develop The Armory Show as a powerful platform for leading international galleries and collectors alike, further cementing our place as America’s preeminent art fair.” The Armory Show’s next edition will kick off in Manhattan this coming March.

05  New York’s Neue Galerie announced Tuesday that it had resolved the restitution issues surrounding a Nazi-looted painting in its collection by first returning—and then repurchasing—the work.

(via the New York Times)

The case centered around Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s Nude (1914), which the Neue Galerie purchased at auction in 1999. In order to put the work’s murky history to rest, the museum returned it to the heirs of the original owner, a Jewish businessman and art collector whose widow lost the painting to the Nazis when she fled Germany in the 1930s. As part of the settlement, the Neue Galerie then immediately purchased the painting back at what the New York Times is calling “fair market value,” though the institution did not disclose the specific price. The Neue Galerie was founded by Ronald S. Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder fortune and a vocal proponent of Holocaust art restitution. Lauder currently serves as the chairman of the Commission for Art Recovery, which is dedicated to facilitating the transfer of artworks forcibly taken by the Nazis back to their original owners. Critics have challenged Lauder’s commitment to this issue for over a decade, pointing to his lack of transparency regarding the provenance of pieces in his collection and in the Neue Galerie. In response, he renewed attempts to trace the origin of these works; so far, he has returned three additional works from his private collection.

06  Following several contentious attempts to auction off a cache of 85 paintings by Joan Miró, the Portuguese government has announced that the collection will not leave the country after all.

(via artnet News)

Previously owned by the Banco Português de Negócios, these works were seized by the government in 2008 when the bank collapsed. Together, the collection is estimated to be worth $39 million. The government originally planned to auction the paintings through Christie’s London in February 2014, a sale that was postponed until June 2014 due to legal objections over the export of cultural heritage items. Further public outcry led the government to withdraw the works from auction completely; the paintings remained in limbo until Monday, when Prime Minister Antonio Costa announced that the government had “finally decided to keep the famous collection of Miró works in the city of Porto.” However, it remains to be seen if the state will maintain ownership or if the works will be sold to private collectors who agree to keep them in the city.

07  On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it had laid off 34 employees (1.5% of its total staff) in an aim to rein in a growing deficit.

(via the New York Times)

The layoffs, part of a broader strategy to reduce the museum’s deficit by $30 million, continue a current 24-month financial restructuring announced in April. The effort includes buyouts and plans to raise retail revenue. The current layoffs spared curators and conservators, jobs originally anticipated to be cut by 5%, but did affect a number of administrative and managerial roles. “These are difficult decisions—we’re disappointed to be losing good colleagues—but we’re making very good progress on the process we put in motion,” Daniel H. Weiss, the museum’s president and COO, told the New York Times. While the museum has taken pains to emphasize that the quality of exhibitions will not be impacted, the institution is likely to scale back the number of upcoming shows, possibly from 55 to 40. The Met’s deficit comes after it has undertaken several ambitious and costly ventures, including opening the Met Breuer (which operates at an annual cost of $17 million) and a new $600 million modern and contemporary wing.

08  After eight years of planning and fundraising, a new Iraqi antiquities museum, housed in a former palace of Saddam Hussein, has partially opened.

(via The Art Newspaper 

The new Basrah Museum, located in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, currently lacks the funds to open at its full scale. Director Qahtan Alabeed plans to roll out the project little by little, starting with a gallery devoted to the history of Basra and the surrounding area from the third century B.C. to the 1800s. The remaining three spaces, which will display Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian artifacts, will open over the next several years, due to funding and logistical obstacles. A $3 million contribution promised by the Basra Provincial Council was never provided, and despite the nearly £500,000 raised by a British charity, the museum still needs an estimated £450,000 to be fully operational. Due to the violence Iraq has faced in recent decades, many of the ancient artifacts now on view at the Basrah Museum—including much of the city’s former museum’s collection—had previously been evacuated to the National Museum in Baghdad for safekeeping. The objects required a military escort to travel the 500 kilometers back to Basra. These 550 loaned items will join an additional 160 objects, many from the Ottoman era, that had never left the city.

09  In a ruling aimed at deterring attacks on cultural heritage, the ICC has sentenced an Islamic militant to nine years in prison after he pleaded guilty in August to orchestrating the destruction of shrines in Timbuktu.

(via The Guardian and Artsy)

The landmark trial was the first at the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute attacks on culturally significant monuments as a war crime. It was also the first time an Islamic militant was brought to justice by the ICC. Presiding judge Raul Cano Pangalangan said that the sentence passed down upon Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi corresponded to the gravity of his crimes. He added that the sentence would serve to deter others, in Mali or elsewhere, from perpetrating similar acts, though it will be difficult to assess if this does actually prevent future destruction. Mahdi, a member of a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, participated in the organization of attacks on the holy sites—a mosque and nine mausoleums—four years ago, when much of northern Mali was held by Islamic extremists. After having been arrested in Niger and transferred to the ICC at the Hague last September, Mahdi expressed remorse for his actions and urged others against following in his footsteps. These actions contributed to the relatively lighter sentence of nine years for a crime punishable by up to 30.

10  A drawing by Adolph Menzel that art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt bought from a woman fleeing the persecution of Nazi Germany in 1939 will be returned to descendants of its former owner.

(via The Art Newspaper)

Gurlitt purchased the Menzel drawing, Blick über die Dächer von Schandau (View over the Roofs of Schandau), for the Wallraf-Richartz Museum. The city of Cologne has announced that it will turn the work over to the heirs of Elisabeth Linda Martens, who sold the painting under duress before emigrating to the U.S. with her Jewish husband. The case is one facet of a much larger story that has unraveled over the past several  years—that of Gurlitt’s son, Cornelius, who was discovered in 2012 to have been hoarding his father’s collection of over 1500 works of art, many of which were looted or bought from Jews under duress. The collection includes works by ManetRenoir, and Courbet, among other icons of 19th-century art. The works were left to gather dust and in some cases grow mold in Cornelius Gurlitt’s two homes, in Austria and Germany, over several decades. An investigation into Cornelius’s holdings began in 2010 when he was caught on a train traveling between Germany and Switzerland by a customs official who discovered 9,000 euros on his person, prompting the search of his Munich apartment by tax authorities.

Artsy Editors

Cover image: Photo by Marine B, via Flickr.