Depicting a rain-swept Parisian street, the Nazi-looted painting has long hung on the walls of one of Madrid’s top art museums. His fate is now in the hands of the highest court in the United States, in a case that has long pitted the Spanish institution against the heirs of Jewish refugees.
At the center of the U.S. Supreme Court hearing, set to begin Tuesday, is an 1897 painting by impressionist Camille Pissarro. For decades, the piece – titled Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Rain Effect – adorned the walls of the Cassirer family homes in Berlin and Munich after being purchased directly from Pissarro’s art dealer. .
In 1939, as escalating Nazi oppression made it clear that the prominent Jewish family would have to leave Germany or risk death, Lilly Cassirer Neubauer scrambled to find a way out. He was told exit visas could be obtained, but at a cost: the family would have to hand over their prized Pissarro painting.
A Nazi-appointed appraiser offered the modest sum of $360, paid into a blocked account that the family could not access.
Cassirer then spent years searching for the oil on canvas, according to his heirs. After concluding that it had been lost or destroyed, she accepted $13,000 in reparations from the German government in 1958, but did not waive her right to seek the painting’s return.
More than 40 years later, his grandson Claude discovered that the painting was on display at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. After Spain denied his request to return, he sued in his home state of California, sparking a legal battle that has spanned more than 15 years. When Claude died in 2010, his son David took over.
“The Cassirer family has been trying to take back what’s rightfully theirs for three generations,” said family attorney Stephen Zack of US law firm Boies Schiller Flexner.
The tumultuous past of the painting, which has been estimated to be worth $30m (£22m), is undisputed. “Unlike many cases where there is a dispute over fact, no one disputes the fact that this painting belonged to the Cassirers and was taken by the Nazis without compensation,” Zack said.
Instead, the legal battle — including the current question before the Supreme Court — has focused on whether California or Spanish law should be used to determine the rightful owner of the painting.
The painting changed hands several times before being purchased by Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza in 1976. It then moved to Spain in 1993, when a state-backed non-profit foundation paid Baron $338 million for much of his collection, to be housed in a museum bearing his name.
In 2015, a California court ruled that ownership of the painting fell under Spanish law, meaning it belonged to the museum under a Spanish clause that defines ownership as six years of uninterrupted possession. The decision was upheld by an appeals court in 2020.
The Cassirers had asked the courts to apply local law. “Under California law, there is no opportunity for a person to obtain good title to stolen property,” Zack said.
The appeals court, however, criticized Spain for not respecting its “moral commitments” to return works of art stolen by the Nazis. “It is perhaps regrettable that a country and a government can be moralizing in their declarations, without being bound by these declarations. But that is the state of the law,” the 2020 decision read.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum referred all questions to a press release issued in October after the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. “At the conclusion of the case … the foundation anticipates that its ownership of the painting – already recognized by the District Court and the Ninth Circuit – will be affirmed,” he said.
The museum pointed to the court’s finding that the baron and the foundation purchased the piece without knowing it had been stolen. “The evidence showed that in 1958 the German government paid the plaintiff’s predecessor, Lily [sic] Cassirer, she asked for compensation (the fair market value of the painting at the time) to compensate her for her loss,” he added.
The case comes as heirs around the world continue to fight to recover some of the 600,000 works of art looted by Hitler’s Germany. In Spain, the main governing bodies of the Jewish community submitted briefs to the court in support of the Cassirer family, describing the years-long feud as exacerbating the deep wounds left by the Holocaust.
“Additional harm and offense is caused to the Jewish population of Spain when a government-funded institution publicly displays and claims rightful ownership of a work of art looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust,” the Community said. of Madrid and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain. Spain stated in its communication.
Bernardo Cremades Román, one of the lawyers representing the organizations, pitted Spain’s silent and unwavering refusal to return the painting to the country’s high-profile efforts to ease the path to citizenship for descendants of Jews expelled from Spain. at the end of the fifteenth century. “I think Spain are trying to put on a good show.”
Reluctance to heed the request also clashes with Spain’s status as a signatory to the Washington Principles, a 1998 agreement pledging to return works of art confiscated by the Nazis to their rightful owners or provide restitution, he noted.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Cremades Román. “If you see someone who has been stripped of their property illegally, the right thing to do is return that property. It doesn’t matter if it’s Jewish in nature or not.