The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday to revive a years-long lawsuit over the rightful ownership of a painting by French impressionist Camille Pissarro surrendered to the Nazis in 1939. The court’s ruling opens an opportunity for the heirs of Lilly Cassirer, the painting’s original owner, to reclaim it from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, where it has been on display for decades.
The Spanish museum has argued that Pissarro’s 1897 Rue Saint-Honoré, Après-midi, Effet de Pluie, was acquired in good faith. The Cassirer family maintains that it was sold under duress to a Nazi art appraiser. The painting is believed to be worth today tens of millions of dollars.
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In the Supreme Court opinion, Justice Elena Kagan said that lower courts had erred in applying a federal, rather than state law, to the family’s claim brought under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows foreign sovereign nations to be sued in U.S. courts. A 2020 trial in federal district court in California ruled that Spanish law should be used in the case, resulting in a win for the museum.
“The path of our decision has been as short as the hunt for [the painting] was long; our ruling is as simple as the conflict over its rightful owner has been vexed,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the court’s decision. “A foreign state or instrumentality… is liable just as a private party would be. That means the standard choice-of-law rule must apply.”
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 Pissarro painting, a depiction of a rainy Parisian street, was exchanged by Lilly Cassirer in exchange for $360 and her family’s safe passage out of Germany. She never received the money and, though she and her husband escaped persecution, her sister was killed at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. In 1948, the Cassirer family filed an appeal with a tribunal organized by 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 purchased 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 comprising the acquisition formed the foundation of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation in Madrid.
Litigation began after Claude Cassirer, Lilly’s grandson, found the painting at the Thyssen in 2000. His requests for its return rejected, he sued the foundation in California court in 2005. After his death in 2010, his on David Cassirer carried on the court battle.
The Thyssen maintains that it did not know the painting was looted when it acquired it from the baron. Amid the litigation, the museum investigated 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. However, according to a report in Courthouse News, the museum had overlooked a label on the painting that linked it to a gallery in Berlin owned by the Cassirers. David Boies of Boies Schiller, the law firm representing the family, also questioned why the baron recorded in his ledger of art purchases that the sale of the painting took place in Paris rather than New York.
The final ruling, however, will hinge on the discrepancy between Spanish and U.S. laws regarding the conditions for rightful ownership. Under Spanish law, the possession of property for an uninterrupted ten years is enough to transfer good faith and title—whether the buyer knew it was stolen or not. In California law, a thief can never attain or pass a title regardless the length of ownership.
In 2015, a Los Angeles court found that under Spanish law, the the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum could not be forced to surrender Rue Saint-Honoré, Après-midi, Effet de Pluie. In 2020, the 9th Circuit court of appeals affirmed that ruling, prompting the Cassirer family to petition the U.S. Supreme Court. The court agreed to hear the case last October and oral argument began in January.
Yesterday’s ruling sends the case back to the 9th district, where both parties will be judged under California law. While the ruling does not guarantee a victory for the Cassirer family, it significantly narrows the arguments available for the museum’s defense of retaining ownership of the Pissarro. A legal avenue the museum may take is claiming that the Cassirer family was sufficiently awarded reparations in the form of the $13,000 settlement from the Germany, according to Georges Lederman, an attorney specializing in art law from the international law firm Withers.
“The lesson to be taken from this case that in when seeking to reclaim an artwork from a foreign nation, it’s best to bring the lawsuit into the United States where the foreign nation is treated no differently than a private citizen,” he said. “This will have a huge impact on the case, and likely determine the outcome.”