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Pasadena Appeals Court Rules Against Heir in Nazi-Looted Art Case

Published on Wednesday, August 19, 2020 | 4:53 am
Detail from Camille Pissarro’s “Rue Saint-Honore: Afternoon, Rain Effect.”

A Pasadena appeals court ruled against the San Diego-based heir of a Jewish art collector who alleged that the Thyssen- Bornemisza Museum in Spain is improperly holding onto a painting that was looted from his family 80 years ago by the Nazis, court papers obtained Tuesday show.

Camille Pissarro’s “Rue Saint-Honore: Afternoon, Rain Effect,” which depicts a 19th century Paris street scene and is valued at over $30 million, has been housed at the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid for over 25 years.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Monday that the museum could keep the artwork, affirming a Los Angeles federal judge’s 2019 decision.

Attorneys for the family of heir David Cassirer and lawyers for the museum have sparred over the provenance of the painting for more than 15 years.

According to the 2005 lawsuit, the Nazis confiscated the painting from Lilly Cassirer, whose family owned a prominent art gallery in Berlin in the 1930s. As the woman tried to leave Germany, a Nazi official forced her to surrender the painting in exchange for the exit visa she needed. Her sister, who remained, was later killed in a Nazi death camp.

During the war, the painting was sold by the Nazis to an anonymous buyer, and the Cassirer family believed it was lost until a family friend saw it hanging at the museum 20 years ago.

Court documents show that Swiss industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza purchased the painting in 1976 from a St. Louis art collector, and hung it in his bedroom. Years later, Spain bought Thyssen- Bornemisza’s collection to hang at his namesake museum, which has repeatedly refused to return the painting to the Cassirer family, according to the lawsuit.

Five years after Claude Cassirer, Lilly’s grandson — a part-time resident of Coronado — filed the suit, a judge dismissed the case. That decision was overturned in 2013 by a federal appeals court, setting the stage for a 2018 trial in downtown Los Angeles.

After Claude died, his 66-year-old son, David Cassirer, became the plaintiff, along with the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County.

The Cassirer family originally filed suit following a Supreme Court decision allowing U.S. citizens to sue foreign governments in federal court over art plundered by the the Nazis.

Plaintiffs’ attorney David Boies suggested during the trial two years ago that the baron bought the painting in “bad faith,” knowing it had been stolen or willfully ignoring research that could have illuminated the fraught history of the piece.

Thyssen-Bornemisza’s attorney, Thaddeus J. Stauber, argued that there was no evidence that the baron acquired the Pissarro painting in anything but good faith in 1976 and the foundation lawfully took possession of it 17 years later.

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