In recent art world news, last week the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a holocaust survivor’s heirs can seek the return of a Nazi looted painting from Spain’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. The prized painting, “Rue Saint-Honore, Apres-Midi, Effet de Pluie” (1897), is a vibrant Impressionist oil-on-canvas created by Camille Pissaro while living in Paris in the late 19th century. Nearly 80 years ago, Lilly Cassirer was forced to surrender her family’s treasured Pissaro painting to the Nazis in exchange for safe passage out of Germany during the Holocaust. For nearly the past 20 years, Lilly Cassirer’s heirs have been trying to get it back.
By the end of World War II, the painting had disappeared. In believing the work was lost, the German government paid Lilly Cassirer $13,000 in total reparations in 1958. Lilly Cassirer passed away four years later in 1962. In 1999, a friend of Lilly Cassirer’s grandson Claude Cassirer, who had fled Germany with Lilly and her family in 1939, discovered a photo of the painting in a catalog and reached out to him. Shortly thereafter, Claude Cassirer learned that the painting was displayed in the Madrid based museum.
Claude Cassirer had initiated the litigation against the museum, which was taken over by his children, David and Ava Cassirer, after Claude’s passing in 2010. The family had previously went through diplomatic channels to request the return of the painting, but was rejected.
In last Monday’s ruling, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the museum previously failed to establish that it was unaware the painting was stolen when the work was acquired from Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyseen-Bornemisza, scion of Germany’s Thyssen steel empire and one of the 20th century’s most eminent art collectors.
Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyseen-Bornemisza had acquired the painting for $275,000 from a gallery owner in New York in 1976. Before that, the painting had been sold and resold by various United States art collectors. The Baron’s art collection of over 700 paintings was eventually turned over to Spain, which created a non-profit foundation to run the museum named for him.
The Cassirer family’s attorney praised the court’s decision and said “[i]t sent a strong message that even public authorities cannot take possession in bad faith of stolen property and then somehow gain title to it simply over the passage of time.” The museum’s attorney said that Spain remains confident it will prevail and that the museum acquired the painting in good faith. The Cassirer family disputes the museum’s attorney’s assertion and believes it should have been obvious to museum authorities by the 1990s that the museum had acquired a Nazi looted work.
The Cassirer family is hopeful that the outcome will lead to the return of the painting and has said that it should be displayed publicly. The Pissaro painting has been appraised at more than $30 million.
For a detailed background and procedural history of the case, see the Ninth Circuit’s decision captioned Cassirer v. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation of July 10, 2017.