Background of the Case
A three-judge panel for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena unanimously upheld a lower court ruling on Tuesday allowing the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid to retain a prized painting that was stolen from a Jewish family during the Nazi era.
The oil on canvas painting, “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain,” was completed in 1897 by French Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro. In 1939, Jewish collector Lilly Cassirer Neubauer was forced to surrender the painting to the Nazis in exchange for an exit visa out of Germany during the Holocaust. Her descendants have waged a longstanding legal battle to recover the painting, which is now estimated to be worth over $30 million.
Latest Court Ruling Sides With Museum
In its 25-page ruling, the 9th Circuit panel affirmed that under Spanish property law, the museum that acquired the Pissarro painting in good faith was entitled to retain ownership after several years of public display. The painting had seemingly vanished after World War II and only resurfaced in 1976 when Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza acquired it from a New York gallery.
“We conclude that California law supports the application of Spanish property law and that principles of comity counsel deferring to Spain’s resolution of the disputed ownership of the Painting,” the ruling stated.
|Key Details of the 9th Circuit’s Ruling
|Affirms Spain’s property law should govern the case
|Upholds lower court ruling favoring museum ownership
|Cites principles of international comity
|Notes painting had already lawfully belonged to museum for over 20 years
While the decision represents another setback for the heirs seeking restitution, the court appeared sympathetic to the family’s claims and recognized their “abhorrent” treatment at the hands of the Nazis.
“We recognize that, as Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, the Cassirers were subjected to unimaginable atrocities,” the ruling said. “As a result of these atrocities, the Cassirers lost not just their country, livelihoods, and possessions but also an integral member of their family.”
Family Vows to Keep Fighting
Despite the appeals court loss, the family of Lilly Cassirer Neubauer has vowed to continue their legal efforts to regain the Pissarro painting that was extorted from their grandmother.
“My family and I refuse to accept this injustice and we will take whatever next steps are necessary — including to the Supreme Court — to correct this erroneous court decision,” said family representative David Cassirer in a statement.
The ruling comes more than 16 years after Cassirer first launched legal action against the Spanish museum upon discovering the disputed painting in the museum’s online catalog. Over the long course of litigation, courts have wavered between applying California or Spanish law in the unusual case involving an American family’s heirloom stolen by Nazis in Europe that later ended up as a centerpiece work of art in a Madrid museum.
What Happens Next
Legal experts say the family faces an uphill climb if they decide to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which only agrees to hear about 1% of petitions it receives annually. However, successful Holocaust restitution claims have set unique precedents in court before.
Spain has attracted criticism in recent years for not doing enough to address Nazi-looted art that ended up in the country after circulating through Europe for decades. The country has been urged to establish formal processes for Holocaust victims and their heirs to pursue restitution claims. Tuesday’s ruling found that the painting had already legally belonged to the museum for over 20 years under Spanish possession laws, likely clouding any claims going forward.
The nonprofit Commission for Art Recovery has been assisting the Cassirer family’s efforts to reclaim the painting. While the appeals court defeat represents a setback in this long-running dispute, the organization says it will continue advocating for a just resolution for the heirs.
“The court ruled on a technicality of property law rather than the merits of who has the strongest moral and ethical claim to the painting,” said the commission’s chairman, attorney Chris Marinello. “We are looking into filing a petition so the family can continue fighting for Camille Pissarro’s exquisite painting that the Nazis so cruelly stole from their ancestors.”
As World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) Chair of Operations Gideon Taylor noted after the ruling, the court did not dispute Lilly Cassirer Neubauer’s painting was stolen from her by the Nazis. While bound by precedent regarding property law statutes, Taylor says more work clearly needs to be done to ensure families receive justice for these sorts of losses.
“This also highlights why countries need to address the complex issue of Nazi-looted art – especially in museum collections,” Taylor stated. He said principles enshrined in documents like the Terezin Declaration should provide guiding standards for resolving these cases going forward.
So while this week’s court decision represented a victory for the Spanish museum housing the Pissarro painting at the center of the dispute, the long legal saga appears far from over. Unless a surprise breakthrough leads to an settlement between the parties in the case, the Cassirer heirs seem primed to continue battling for their family’s stolen legacy.
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