The California Court of Appeals ruled July 6 that the heirs of a Pissaro painting taken by Nazis during the Holocaust can sue the Madrid museum holding the painting, after a 16-year legal battle.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that David and Ava Cassirer, the great-grandchildren of Holocaust victim Lilly Cassirer, may sue the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid for the return of Camille Pissarro's 1897 depiction of a Paris street scene, "Rue Saint-Honoré, Après-midi, Effet de Pluie."
The impressionist masterpiece has been held by the Spanish government in a Madrid museum since 1992. The appeals court said it was an open question whether the museum knew the painting was stolen when it acquired it.
In 1939 Germany, as part of the Aryanization of the property of German Jews, Lilly Cassirer Neubauer was forced to sell a painting by impressionist Camille Pissaro to Nazi appointed art dealer Jakob Scheidwimmer to escape Germany. The Cassirers were a prominent Jewish family in 19th Century Germany.
In 2000 Claude Cassirer, a photographer, learned from a client the painting was in the Museum. In 2001, the Cassirer family filed a petition in Spain seeking the return of the painting. After that petition was denied, in 2005, Claude Cassirer filed an action in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California seeking the return of the painting.
The museum bought the painting in a $338 million purchase of the Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza’s art collection. The museum said that price was well below the collection's estimated $1 billion to $2 billion value, and the baron bought the Pissaro for $275,000 in 1976.
Judge Carlos Bea stated the Cassirers have produced sufficient evidence to create a triable issue that the Thyssen Bornemisza collection knew the painting had been stolen from its rightful owner when the painting was acquired acquired from the baron. An expert in the field noted that Pissarro paintings were immediately suspect because they were favored by European Jewish collectors and often looted by the Nazis, and would be considered red flags to the Thyssen Bornemisza collection and the baron that the painting was stolen.
In the decision, Bea stated, “Under California law, thieves cannot pass good title to anyone, including a good faith purchaser.” The court ruled the Thyssen Bornemisza collection has not established, as a matter of law, that it did not have actual knowledge the painting was stolen property.
The case has been remanded back to the district court for further proceedings.
The Cassirers were represented by attorneys David Boies, Devin Velvel Freedman and Stephen N. Zack of Boies Schiller & Flexner LLP.
U.S. Court of Appeals case number 15-55550 15-55977