US judge rules against family over Nazi-seized masterpiece

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Posted: Jun 11, 2015 8:01 PM
US judge rules against family over Nazi-seized masterpiece

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A federal judge in California has dealt a blow to a Jewish family's prolonged battle to regain ownership of a masterpiece painting seized from a woman fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 and now on display in a museum in Spain.

Judge John Walter found that under Spanish law, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid is the rightful owner of "Rue Saint-Honore, Apres-midi, Effet de Pluie," an 1897 masterpiece by Camille Pissarro depicting a Parisian street scene. In last week's ruling, Walter dismissed a 2005 lawsuit filed by the woman's heirs against the museum, but urged the institution to consider what would be fair to victims of Nazi persecution.

On Thursday, the family's attorney promised to appeal Walter's ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, saying the museum's position is "morally and legally wrong."

"Museums and governments around the world recognize the need to return Nazi-looted art to its rightful owners," attorney Laura Brill said. "The museum is not doing the right thing here."

Brill represents Ava and David Cassirer, the Americans whose great-grandmother, Lilly Cassirer, was forced to hand over the Pissarro to the Nazi government in 1939 in exchange for $360 and a visa to leave the country.

After World War II, Lilly Cassirer said she accepted about $13,000 in restitution in the German courts after unsuccessful attempts to find the painting.

Unbeknownst to her, the painting surfaced in the U.S. in 1951, and was sold among various art collectors and dealers until it was bought in 1976 by Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, "one of the world's most prolific private art collectors" and scion of Germany's Thyssen steel empire, according to an earlier 9th Circuit ruling in the case. In 1993, the Spanish government paid $338 million for hundreds of the baron's artworks, including the Pissarro, for display in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, according to court records.

Lilly Cassirer's grandson, Claude Cassirer, found out about the painting after a friend saw it in the museum in 2000, setting off the legal battle that continues today.

The Cassirer family argued in court records that the museum ignored red flags about the painting's origin, including a "Berlin" label on the back and the fact that Pissarro paintings were frequent targets of Nazi looting.

Thaddeus Stauber, an attorney who represents the museum, said the museum acquired the painting from the baron "in good faith" and that the German government compensated the family for the artwork in the 1950s.

"The painting has been in the public domain for over 40 years," Stauber said. "If somebody was looking to conceal something, looking to hide the past of a wonderful painting like this doesn't have it put on public display, have it travel and have it published. They would have sold it in some marketplace."

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