Judge rules Spanish museum is legal owner of Nazi-looted painting

Yesterday (30 April 2019), a federal U.S. judge ruled that a Spanish museum was the rightful owner of a Nazi-looted painting, rather than the survivors of the Jewish woman who relinquished it to flee the Holocaust.

In 1993, German industrialist Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza sold his entire collection, which included the Nazi-looted painting, to a non-profit foundation funded by Spain. At the time the collection was valued as US$350 million (£268 million) and the Museum was soon named after the Baron.

U.S. District Judge John F. Walter criticized the Baron for not conducting proper due diligence when he acquired the painting by Camille Pissaro in 1976: “the court finds that there were sufficient suspicious circumstances or ‘red flags’ which should have prompted the baron to conduct additional inquires as to the seller’s title”.

Walter ruled the Museum, however, was not aware that the painting had been stolen and under Spanish law it is the rightful legal owner.

Despite his ruling, Walter chastised the Museo National Thyssen-Bornemisza’s decision to keep the painting as “inconsistent” with international agreements. Many international institutions advocate for returning Nazi-looted works to their original owners.

The court has no alternative but to apply Spanish law and cannot force the Kingdom of Spain or Thyssen-Bornemisza to comply with its moral commitments”, concluded Walter.

Camille Pisarro’s Rue St.-Honore, Apres-Midi, Effet de Pluie, depicting a rainy Paris street viewed from the artist’s window, was painted in 1897. Pisarro’s dealer sold the oil painting to Julius Cassirer, who left it to his daughter-in-law Lilly Cassirer upon his death.

As persecution of the Jews intensified during World War II, Lilly was forced by the government to give her painting away before escaping Germany in 1939. For years, Lilly’s American heirs assumed the painting was lost until they discovered its location in Madrid.

This ruling settles a 20-year legal battle between the Cassirer family and the Museum. Thaddeus Stauber, the Museum’s U.S. attorney stated “I think it puts an end to it because the court conducted, and we conducted, what the appellate court asked us to, which was a full trial on the merits”.

Previously, the family had appealed the case twice and another appeal may still be possible according to the 34-page ruling.

An attorney for Lilly’s recently deceased grandson, David Cassirer, stated “we respectfully disagree that the court cannot force the Kingdom of Spain to comply with its moral commitments”.

The family alleges that the Baron knew the painting was stolen when he originally bought it. While the work is currently valued at over US$30 million (£23 million), the Cassirer family were only paid US$13,000 (£9,900) in reparations in 1958 by the German government, which thought the work was lost.

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