Jewish family loses bid to reclaim Impressionist painting sold to Nazis

Lilly Cassirer, pictured with her grandson Claude, owned a valuable Pissarro painting in Berlin in the 1930s. The impressionist painting, right, was seized by the Nazis in 1939 and now hangs at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. Cassirer’s great grandson is fighting a legal battle with the Spanish museum to return the painting.
Lilly Cassirer, pictured with her grandson Claude, owned a valuable Pissarro painting in Berlin in the 1930s. The impressionist painting, right, was seized by the Nazis in 1939 and now hangs at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. Cassirer’s great grandson is fighting a legal battle with the Spanish museum to return the painting. – The Cassirer Family Trust, public domain

A Jewish family has lost a long-running legal fight to reclaim a French Impressionist painting that its ancestors were forced to sell to flee Nazi Germany and that later ended up in the possession of a Spanish museum.

The bid by the heirs of Lilly Cassirer, whose family owned the Camille Pissarro painting in the 1930s, was rejected by a Los Angeles federal judge. He found that he could not order the current owner, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, to return the artwork, Rue St. Honore, Apres midi, Effet de Pluie, under Spanish law.

The Cassirer descendants, represented by lawyers at Boies Schiller Flexner in Los Angeles and Miami, plan to appeal.

“We respectfully disagree that the court cannot force the Kingdom of Spain to comply with its moral commitments,” said Miami attorney Steve Zack, who tried the case along with partner David Boies.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge John F. Walter cited the Washington Principles that were adopted in 1998 by 44 countries, including Spain. The nonbinding principles appeal to the moral conscience of signatory nations to return pre-World II art that was found to have been confiscated by the Nazis.

But the judge stopped short of ruling against the Spanish government’s museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, which owns Pissarro’s painting, Rue St. Honore, Apres midi, Effet de Pluie. Completed in 1897, the painting has an estimated value of $40 million.

“TBC’s refusal to return the painting to the Cassierers is inconsistent with the Washington Principles and the [related] Terezin Declaration,” Walter wrote in his 34-page decision. “However the court has no alternative but to apply Spanish law and cannot force the Kingdom of Spain or TBC to comply with its moral commitments.

“Accordingly, after considering all of the evidence and the arguments of the parties, the court concludes that TBC is the lawful owner of the painting and the court must enter judgment in favor of TBC,” Walter concluded.

The odyssey of the Pissarro painting began in 1900, when his exclusive agent sold the work to the Cassirers, who owned a prominent gallery in Berlin. Lilly Cassirer inherited the piece in 1926, and displayed it in her parlor. By 1939, as the Nazis were systematically destroying Jewish society and preparing to unleash their war machine on Europe, Cassirer was forced to sell them the painting for a paltry value of $360 in exchange for safe passage out of Germany.

During the war, the Nazis sold the painting to an anonymous buyer. For decades, the Cassirers believed the painting was lost, until a family friend in 2000 spotted it at the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum.

The painting — today valued at at least $40 million — wound up in the hands of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, a member of the famous German industrialist family. Records show he had purchased the painting in 1976 from St. Louis collector Sydney Schoenberg through the Stephen Hahn Gallery in New York.

Spain later bought Thyssen-Bornemisza’s art collection for display at the government-run museum that bears his name. The baron died in 2002. For years after the painting was spotted, the Cassirer family repeatedly asked the museum to return the painting.

It was not until 2005 that Claude Cassirer, Lilly’s grandson, filed a federal lawsuit in Southern California. A trial judge dismissed the case five years later, a decision overturned in 2013 by a federal appeals court. Claude has since died, but his son, David Cassirer, is now the plaintiff, along with the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County.

Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this story.