Jan Meisels Allen
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously on August 18, 2020, that a Camille Pissarro painting a Jewish woman traded to the Nazis to escape the Holocaust in 1939 may remain the property of a Spanish museum that acquired it decades later. While the case has been making the rounds of Spanish and US courts for 20 years this may not be the last court that has a decision on who owns the painting valued at $30 million. The Cassirer family may appeal to the full 9th Circuit or even the U.S. Supreme Court.
The painting is, "La Rue St. Honoré, effet de Soleil, Après-Midi, 1898,” an oil-on-canvas work of a rain-swept Paris street that Pissarro painted as he gazed at the scene from his hotel window.
Lilly Cassirer’s father-in-law bought it directly from Pissarro’s art dealer and left it to her and her husband when he died. In 1939, she traded it to the Nazis in exchange for exit visas for herself, her husband and her grandson, who eventually settled in the U.S. Her great-grandson, David Cassirer of San Diego, has continued the litigation since his father's death.
Neither Cassirer's heirs nor Spain's Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum dispute the painting's early history.
What's at issue all these years later is whether Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza made any serious effort to determine the painting was looted art when he acquired it from a New York gallery owner for $275,000 in 1976. Also in question is whether the Spanish curators did their due diligence in tracing its provenance when a Spanish nonprofit foundation acquired it and hundreds of other paintings from the baron's collection in 1992 and created the Madrid museum that bears his name.
Lilly Cassirer’s heirs say she spent years trying to recover the painting before concluding it was lost and accepting $13,000 in reparations from the German government in 1958.
It wasn’t until 1999 that her grandson, Claude, who had vividly recalled seeing it hanging in the family's German home, discovered it in the Madrid museum. After Spain refused to hand it over, he sued.
Jan Meisels Allen
Chairperson, IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee