The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal for the restitution of a painting by French impressionist Camille Pissarro stolen by the Nazis in 1939. The work has been on display for decades at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, which has argued throughout the years-long legal dispute that the painting was acquired in good faith. Prior rulings have been split over whether the California-based heirs of the original owner have the right to press their claims against a Spanish institution in a U.S. court.
Pissarro’s 1897 depiction of a Parisian street, Rue Saint-Honoré, Après-midi, Effet de Pluie, was sold in 1939 by Lilly Cassirer to a Nazi art appraiser in exchange for her family’s safe passage out of Germany. Though Cassirer managed to escape persecution, her sister was killed at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. In 1948, the family filed a restitution claim with a tribunal set up by Allied forces, as the painting had already been sold at a Gestapo auction in Berlin. The tribunal ruled that the family were the rightful owners, but failed to locate the painting. The Cassirers, believing it lost forever, accepted a $13,000 payment from the German state.
Litigation began after Lilly’s grandson Claude Cassirer discovered the painting hanging at the Thyssen in 2000. When his request that the museum return the painting was rejected, he filed a federal lawsuit for its restitution.
“The Cassirers have created a triable issue of fact whether [the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection] knew the painting was stolen from Lilly when TBC purchased the painting from the Baron,” Circuit Judge Carlos Bea wrote. “There is a triable issue of fact as to the Baron’s good faith.”
The museum maintains that it did not know the painting was looted when it acquired it with assistance from the Spanish government in a $338 million purchase of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza’s art collection in 1993. The baron had purchased the Pissarro from the Hahn Gallery in New York for $275,000 in 1976—a steal for a work whose value is estimated today around $40 million. Amid the litigation, the museum conducted an investigation into the provenance of paintings purchased for their collection after 1980 and found no works listed in a registry of cultural objects stolen by the Nazis.
But Cassirers’ attorney, David Boies, accused the museum of misrepresenting the painting’s history and conducting an insufficient examination. According to a report in Courthouse News, the museum had overlooked a label on the painting that connected it to a gallery in Berlin owned by the Cassirer family. Bois also questioned why Thyssen-Bornemisza recorded in his ledger of art purchases that the sale of the artwork took place in Paris as opposed to New York.
A U.S. District Judge in Los Angeles dismissed the lawsuit in June 2015. A Ninth Circuit panel affirmed that ruling in August 2020, prompting the Cassirer family to petition the Supreme Court last May. The family’s success hinges on whether federal or state law will be applied to their claim brought under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows foreign sovereign nations to be sued in U.S. courts.
“Under California law, a holder of stolen property (such as the Spanish state museum here) can never acquire good title,” Boies said in a statement.