The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided on Thursday to reinitiate a years-long lawsuit over the rightful ownership of a painting by French Impressionist Camille Pissarro turned over to the Nazis in 1939. The court’s decision opens an opportunity for heirs of Lilly Cassirer, the painting’s original owner. , to retrieve it from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, where it has been exhibited for decades.
The Spanish Museum argued that Pissarro’s 1897 Rue Saint-Honoré, Afternoon, Effect of Rain, was acquired in good faith. The Cassirer family claim it was sold under duress to a Nazi art expert. The painting is believed to be worth tens of millions of dollars today.
In the Supreme Court opinion, Judge Elena Kagan said the lower courts erred in applying federal law, rather than state law, to the family’s petition filed under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities, which allows foreign sovereign nations to be sued in US courts. A 2020 lawsuit in federal district court in California ruled that Spanish law should be used in the case, resulting in a victory for the museum.
“The path to our decision was as short as the hunt for [the painting] was long; our decision is as simple as the dispute over its rightful owner was vexed,” Judge Elena Kagan wrote in the the court decision. “A state or a foreign entity…is responsible in the same way as a private party. This means that the standard choice of law rule should apply.
The litigation began after Lilly’s grandson, Claude Cassirer, discovered the painting hanging in the Thyssen in 2000. When his request for the museum’s return of the painting was denied, he sued federally for its restitution.
Pissarro’s painting, a depiction of a rainy Parisian street, was traded by Lilly Cassirer in exchange for $360 and her family’s safe passage out of Germany. She never received the money, and although she and her husband escaped persecution, her sister was killed in Theresienstadt concentration camp. In 1948, the Cassirer family appealed to a court organized by the Allied forces to recover the painting, but it had already been sold at a Gestapo auction in Berlin. Believing the painting was lost forever, the family accepted a $13,000 settlement from the German government.
In 1976, Swiss collector Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza bought the Pissarro from the Hahn Gallery in New York for $275,000. Seventeen years later, the baron’s art collection was acquired by Spain for $338 million. The 775 works making up the acquisition formed the basis of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation to Madrid.
The litigation began after Claude Cassirer, Lilly’s grandson, found the painting at the Thyssen in 2000. His claims for restitution being denied, he sued the foundation in California court in 2005. After his death in 2010 , his on David Cassirer continued the legal battle .
The Thyssen maintains that he did not know the painting had been looted when he acquired it from the Baron. Amid the litigation, the museum investigated the provenance of paintings purchased for its collection after 1980 and found no works listed in a register of cultural objects stolen by the Nazis. However, according to a report by Courthouse News, the museum had forgotten a label on the painting that linked it to a Berlin gallery owned by the Cassirers. David Boies of Boies Schiller, the law firm representing the family, also questioned why the baron recorded in his art purchases register that the sale of the painting took place in Paris rather than New York.
The final decision, however, will depend on the discrepancy between Spanish and US laws regarding the conditions of legitimate ownership. Under Spanish law, possession of a good for ten uninterrupted years is enough to transfer good faith and title, whether the buyer knows it was stolen or not. Under California law, a thief can never attain or pass title, regardless of the length of ownership.
In 2015, a Los Angeles court ruled that under Spanish law the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum could not be forced to surrender Rue Saint-Honoré, Afternoon, Effect of Rain. In 2020, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision, prompting the Cassirer family to petition to the United States Supreme Court. The court agreed to hear the case last October and oral arguments began in January.
Yesterday’s ruling remands the case to the 9th District, where both sides will be tried under California law. While the decision does not guarantee a victory for the Cassirer family, it does significantly reduce the arguments available for the museum’s defense of retaining ownership of the Pissarro. According to Georges Lederman, an art lawyer with international law firm Withers, one legal avenue the museum can take is to assert that the Cassirer family have received sufficient reparations in the form of a 13-year settlement. 000 dollars from Germany.
“The lesson to be learned from this case is that when seeking to recover a work of art from a foreign country, it is best to sue in the United States where the foreign country is not treated differently from a private citizen,” he said. “It will have a huge impact on the case and will probably determine the outcome.”