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Supreme Court hears claim of painting taken by Nazis


The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard a last-ditch appeal from a California Jewish family seeking to recover an Impressionist masterpiece seized by the Nazis in 1939 and displayed in a Spanish museum since 1993.

The question that now arises after years of litigation, most in a Los Angeles court, is whether the dispute should be resolved under California law, where the family sued, or the Spanish law, where the painting was sold and exhibited.

Under California law, “thieves cannot convey good title to anyone, including a bona fide purchaser,” attorneys for David Cassirer and the Jewish Federation of San Diego County said in their appeal.

During oral arguments on Tuesday, several judges said they agreed that a lawsuit like this one, filed in California, should be decided under California law.

“Welcome to the United States. This is how our courts operate,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Last year, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed with a federal judge in Los Angeles that the painting of a Parisian street scene by Camille Pissarro should remain with the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in a state-owned museum in Madrid. The judges did so by applying Spanish law.

The painting had been illegally brought to the United States after the war and was sold by a gallery in Beverly Hills in 1951. The Stephen Hahn Gallery in New York arranged its sale in 1976 to Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza, a Swiss art collector and heir to a German steel empire. In 1993 he sold his collection of over 775 paintings for $340 million to Spain, where they would be displayed in a new museum in Madrid. The artworks have been on public display for more than six years, a key issue under Spanish law.

But all the while, Claude Cassirer was looking for the lost painting hanging on the wall of his grandmother Lilly’s apartment in Berlin. She gave the painting to a Nazi official in 1939 to get a visa out of Germany. Separately, her grandson fled to Britain and then to Cleveland after the war.

When Lilly Cassirer dies, she leaves the rights to the painting to Claude. In a house outside San Diego, where Claude and his wife had retired, the couple kept a copy of the lost Pissarro on the wall.

Then, in 2000, Cassirer received a phone call from an old acquaintance: the painting had been found. “I was in shock,” he told The Times in 2010.

After being rebuffed by the Spanish government, he sued in 2005 in federal court in Los Angeles to recover the painting, now valued at $30 million.

The state-owned museum sought to have the lawsuit dismissed based on the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which generally shields foreign governments from lawsuits. But the museum lost in the first round of litigation because the law provides an “expropriation exception” for property confiscated in violation of international law.

In the next phase, U.S. District Judge John Walter applied Spanish law and said the museum had openly purchased the paintings and displayed them in public.

While the Baron had ‘reason to suspect’ the painting may have been stolen and the museum ‘may have been irresponsible’ in not investigating its story, Walter said neither did had “actual knowledge” that the painting had essentially been stolen by the Nazis. .

The judge’s decision, upheld by the 9th Circuit Court, would have ended the case had it not been for the Supreme Court’s intervention in September.

If the judges overturn the 9th Circuit Court, which appeared likely during the argument, the case will return to a Los Angeles judge, with an outcome still uncertain.

It may be several months before the court issues a decision in Cassirer v. Thyssen-Bornemisz Collection Foundation.