Spanish Museum Can Keep Nazi-Looted Masterpiece, Judge Rules

(Bloomberg) -- Spain’s Thyssen-Bornemisza museum has won its long U.S. legal battle to hold onto a Camille Pissarro masterpiece that was confiscated by Nazis from its Jewish owner in 1939 as she fled Germany.

While expressing some misgivings about the museum’s actions, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled on Tuesday that it is the legal owner of the painting, after acquiring it decades ago along with other artworks from Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. The American heirs of the original owner had alleged the baron knew the painting was stolen when he bought it from a New York gallery in 1976.

Spanish Museum Can Keep Nazi-Looted Masterpiece, Judge Rules

The government-owned Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid acquired hundreds of artworks, including the Pissarro, from the baron in 1993 for $350 million. The U.S. court ruling comes almost 14 years after Claude Cassirer sued to recover the painting his grandmother was forced to sell for a pittance to avoid being sent to an extermination camp. No one disputed the artwork was looted, but the judge agreed with the museum’s argument that it was purchased in good faith.

“There were sufficient suspicious circumstances or red flags which should have prompted the baron to conduct additional inquiries” about the provenance of the painting, U.S. District Judge John Walter said in his written decision. “However, the court concludes, based on all of the evidence, that TBC acquired lawful ownership.”

Based on the Spanish laws that applied in the case, the museum isn’t legally at fault because neither the Baron nor the museum had actual knowledge the painting was stolen, Walter said. Still, the judge noted that the museum’s refusal to return Nazi-confiscated art to its rightful owners was inconsistent with non-binding international agreements, which Spain had agreed to honor.

“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,” Walter said.

The judge specifically referred to the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art that appealed to the moral conscience of participating countries to return confiscated art works and the 2009 Terezin Declaration that affirmed these principles and encouraged public and private institutions to apply them as well.

“We respectfully disagree that the court cannot force the Kingdom of Spain to comply with its moral commitments,’’ Steve Zack, a lawyer for the heirs said.

Claude Cassirer died in 2010, but his heirs continued to argue in court that the museum’s purchase wasn’t valid because the baron knew the Pissarro was stolen. After three trips to the U.S. court of appeals, the case went to trial in December.

“We are very pleased with the court’s decision that the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation’s ownership of the Camille Pissarro painting stands, and that after a full trial on the merits, the foundation’s ownership has been confirmed,” said Thaddeus Stauber, the foundation’s trial attorney.

According to the lawsuit, the baron was a sophisticated art dealer and would have noticed numerous red flags, such as evidence of labels removed from the back of the canvass and the lack of provenance after it was first exhibited in Paris in 1899.

Original Owner

Julius Cassirer, a German industrialist and part of a prominent Jewish family in Berlin, acquired the artwork titled “Rue Saint-Honore, apres-midi, effet de pluie” in 1898, the year after Pissarro painted it. Lilly, his daughter-in-law, inherited it after her husband’s death. As persecution of Jews escalated, she fled Germany. But the government refused to let her take the masterpiece, forcing her to sell it for about $360, though she never got any money, according to the lawsuit.

The painting resurfaced in 1951, when a Beverly Hills art dealer and former U.S. military translator in Germany acquired it in Munich. Then, a St. Louis art collector offered it for sale at a New York gallery auction in 1976. That’s when it was purchased by Thyssen-Bornemisza, a Dutch-born Swiss citizen who inherited his father’s industrial empire, a chunk of his vast art collection and a baronial title from Hungary.

The case is Cassirer v. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, 05-CV-03459, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles).

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