Notre Dame sued for theft of works of art

SOUTH BEND – Figures are small, rounded human forms, often standing, lying down or seated.

Most are over 3000 years old. The carvings provide a glimpse of the Olmecs, a prehistoric civilization that flourished from around 1500 BCE to 400 BCE along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and present-day Guatemala. Much of what is known about Olmec culture comes from their surviving works of art.

The Snite Museum of Art of the University of Notre-Dame has for more than a decade the Leff collection, a precious group of Olmec figurines.

The collection was previously owned by Jay Leff, a Pittsburgh banker and nationally recognized art collector who died in 2000.

Scott B. Leff, Leff’s eldest son, and his wife, Marilyn McDaniel, allege the collection was stolen.

The couple filed a lawsuit last year in Pittsburgh, alleging that Notre Dame purchased the art collection over ten years ago from an art dealer in New Mexico, who purchased it from the ex-wife of Jay Leff.

At the request of the plaintiff, the case was recently transferred to the US District Court for the Northern District of Indiana in South Bend. No hearing date has been set.

The couple are asking the court to order Notre-Dame to return the Leff figurines to them or to refund their value. The collection is valued at $ 575,500.

Notre Dame purchased the Leff Collection in 2005. The additions of the 97 figurines from the Leff Collection, along with another group of 192 pieces called the Aztlán Collection, mean that the Snite Museum holds the finest collection of Olmec art in the States. United, according to a 2005 retrospective catalog published by the museum.

When Jay Leff died, his son inherited his art collection.

According to court documents, the elder Leff was married for a time to a woman named Sydelle Meyers Leff. Jay Leff in 1995 filed for divorce, which was granted in 1998.

During 1996, the ex-wife allegedly used a key she had to remove the figures from storage and sold them to James Economos / Economos Works of Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, according to the complaint. The Leff family filed a police report in 1996.

The art dealer then sold the collection to Notre Dame, according to the lawsuit. Scott Leff says he didn’t learn until 2015 that the collection was in the Snite Museum.

“Even though Notre Dame acted innocently, unknowingly and in good faith, the plaintiffs retain the only legitimate title to the Leff figurines and their property rights remain superior to those of Notre Dame,” the lawsuit said.

University spokesman Dennis Brown issued a written statement regarding the lawsuit on Wednesday: “The university is confident in its ownership of full and legitimate title to the figurines. We acquired them in good faith from a reputable seller and have not received any information validly questioning our ownership.

In court documents, the university says Scott Leff’s claim has no merit as he has no proof of ownership and made no attempt to reclaim the art for two decades. Notre Dame notes that no criminal charges were filed in the alleged burglary.

“We do not believe that a true owner of this precious art would do nothing for 20 years against the theft of works of art allegedly worth half a million dollars,” lawyers wrote. university in a letter to Scott Leff’s lawyer. The letter also states that it appears Scott Leff has an art consulting business, did business in the intervening years with the New Mexico art dealer, and waited until 2015 to raise questions regarding the collection of figurines.



Reclining female figurine at the Snite museum in Notre-Dame.  Tribune Photo / SANTIAGO FLORES
Female figurine standing at the Snite museum of Notre-Dame.  Tribune Photo / SANTIAGO FLORES

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