NEW YORK• The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan was sued last Friday for the return of a Pablo Picasso masterpiece allegedly sold under duress in 1938 because of Nazi and Fascist persecution in Europe.
A complaint was filed in Manhattan federal court by the great- grandniece of Mr Paul Leffmann, a Jewish industrialist from Germany who once owned The Actor, a rare work from Picasso's Rose Period in 1904 and 1905.
Ms Laurel Zuckerman, who handles estate matters for Mr Leffmann's widow Alice, is alternatively seeking more than US$100 million (S$136 million) of damages.
She joins others seeking to reclaim art taken or sold after Nazis took power in Germany and as Europe plunged towards war.
The Met in a statement said it has "indisputable title" to The Actor and will defend its rights.
Ms Zuckerman said Mr Leffmann sold The Actor to two art dealers in June 1938 for US$12,000 to fund an escape to Switzerland from Benito Mussolini's regime in Italy, where he and his wife had fled from Germany the prior year.
This occurred soon after a state visit by German chancellor Adolf Hitler made clear that Jews in Italy were endangered and "there was no time left" to act, the complaint said.
The Met acquired The Actor in a 1952 donation, but failed to properly investigate its provenance and only after decades of incorrect cataloguing, finally in 2011, acknowledged Mr Leffmann's ownership and sale, the complaint said.
Ms Zuckerman had learnt about the painting in 2010 and demanded its return.
An agreement putting the case on hold expired last Friday.
Mr Lawrence Kaye, a lawyer for Ms Zuckerman, said many European tribunals have ordered the return of artwork sold under duress in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, though such cases have been less common in the United States.
"We believe the painting is tainted by the history of the Holocaust and the Leffmanns, given the circumstances under which they sold it, never lost title," he said.
But the Met said its research "makes clear" that Nazi persecution did not result in the sale, in part because Mr Leffmann sold The Actor at a fair price in Paris and kept the proceeds.
"While the Met understands and sympathises deeply with the losses that Paul and Alice Leffmann endured during the Nazi era, it firmly believes that this painting was not among them," it said.
The Leffmanns settled in Zurich after the war and died there, the complaint said.
The Met website calls The Actor, which depicts a tall and gaunt male figure, "simple yet haunting" and "the work with which Picasso ended his obsession with the wretched in favour of the theatrical world of acrobats and saltimbanques".
It attracted attention in January 2010 when an art student accidentally lost her balance and fell into the canvas, causing a 15cm tear.
The painting was repaired.