Jewish Family Loses Lawsuit to Regain Nazi-Looted Masterpiece

A Spanish museum is refusing to return an impressionist painting by Camille Pissarro to the Jewish family from whom Nazis stole it in 1939. Because Spanish law controls this outcome, a U.S. judge reluctantly had to rule that the museum gets to keep the painting.

Why that had to happen is quite a story. And it’s not a tale you will like.

Pissarro painted a Parisian street scene — the “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon. Effect of Rain” — in 1897. The father-in-law of a Jewish woman named Lilly Cassirer bought it from Pissarro’s art dealer three years later. And the Cassirers displayed the painting in their home for the next three decades.

The nightmare of the Holocaust descended upon Germany in 1939, and the Cassirers knew they had to get out of the country or die. To get visas allowing them to leave, the Cassirers were told they had to surrender the painting to the Nazis in exchange for $360 (that the family could never access). The family received their visas and their freedom. But after World War II ended, Lilly Cassirer never found the painting again.

Her grandson, however, did. A friend of Claude Cassirer saw the Pissarro oil painting hanging in the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. It had been there since the museum opened in 1992.

Spain owns the museum. And the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation owns the Pissarro. When the Cassirers made a claim on the painting in 2005, the foundation refused to return it. Why would it do such a thing?

Well, that Pissarro is now worth a bit more than $360. In 1958, Germany paid Lilly Cassirer $13,000 in reparations for the lost painting, but today it’s valued at $30 million.

More importantly, though, is how Spanish law deals with this situation. It allows museums or collectors to keep artwork they purchase if they didn’t know it was stolen.

The history of how this painting changed hands after it left the possession of Lilly Cassirer is long and involved. Suffice it to say that the U.S. court, bound to apply the law of Spain in this case, found it “would have been extraordinarily difficult … to have determined that the Painting was stolen or looted property.”

Although the court did find some fault with the way the painting wended its way to the museum, ultimately under Spanish law the museum may legally keep it.

That’s not how U.S. law works, by the way. In California, where this case was heard, and under common law, “thieves cannot pass good title to anyone, including a good faith purchaser,” U.S. District Judge John F. Walter noted.

Spain Ignores An Important Moral Obligation

In December 1998, 44 countries (including Spain) committed to the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. These nonbinding principles recognize:

“If the pre-War owners of art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, or their heirs, can be identified, steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution, recognizing this may vary according to the facts and circumstances surrounding a specific case.”

In 2009, Spain joined 45 other countries signing the Terezin Declaration, which reiterated that the Washington Principles “were based upon the moral principle that art and cultural property confiscated by the Nazis from Holocaust (Shoah) victims should be returned to them or their heirs, in a manner consistent with national laws and regulations as well as international obligations, in order to achieve just and fair solutions.”

Despite all this — and despite it being undisputed that the Cassirer family did indeed own that painting before Nazis took it from them — the museum will not return it.

The U.S. judge clearly wasn’t happy he had to rule the way he did. He concluded his opinion in this way:

“TBC’s refusal to return the Painting to the Cassirers is inconsistent with the Washington Principles and the Terezin Declaration. However, the Court has no alternative but to apply Spanish law and cannot force the Kingdom of Spain or TBC to comply with its moral commitments.”

So ends a 15-year fight to recover a work of art that unquestionably belongs to people who cannot get it back. It’s worth noting that of the approximately 600,000 paintings the Nazis looted from Jews during WWII, some 100,000 are still unaccounted for.

TAKE ACTION

Do you want to tell the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation to do the morally correct thing and return the Pissarro painting to the Cassirer family? If so, please sign this petition. Care2 will get it into the right hands, so you can tell the museum the moral imperative here should overcome legalities and the almighty dollar.

Right an injustice, Spain. There are times when the law is on your side but “your side” is still wrong. This is one of them.

If you want to make a difference on an issue you find deeply troubling, you too can create a Care2 petition, and use this handy guide to get started. You‘ll find Care2‘s vibrant community of activists ready to step up and help you.

 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Colección Permanente

54 comments

Ganaisha Calvin
Ganaisha Calvin23 hours ago

disappointing but not surprised

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Tabot T
Tabot Tyesterday

Thanks for sharing!

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Tabot T
Tabot Tyesterday

Petition signed

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Irene S
Irene S4 days ago

Quite incomprehensible! Why not changing an inadequate law, Spain?

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Joan E
Joan E5 days ago

The Nazis stole so many works of art from Jewish families, whom they also tortured, murdered and sent fleeing any way they could. The movie that was referenced in this thread. The Woman in Gold, tells about another family who battled to get back the artwork they paid for and lived with before the Nazis ruined their lives. The Nazis would sell insurance to desperate Jews running for their lives, but then make it impossible for the people to reclaim their rightful belongings.

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Joan E
Joan E5 days ago

Signed.

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Ruth S
Ruth S5 days ago

Thanks.

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Ruth S
Ruth S5 days ago

Thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa M6 days ago

Signed.

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Lisa M
Lisa M6 days ago

Signed.

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