Detail of the painting “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon. Effect of Rain” by Camille Pissarro. Photo: public domain
In an unanimous ruling on Thursday, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the heirs of a German Jewish family who hope to reclaim artwork by Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro that was taken by the Nazis during World War II and is now on display at a museum in Spain.
According to court documents, “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon. Effect of Rain” was originally sold by Pissarro’s agent in 1900 to Paul Cassirer, whose prominent German Jewish family owned an art gallery and publishing house in Germany. Lilly Cassirer inherited the painting, but surrendered the artwork in 1939 to the Nazis in return for an exit visa to flee Germany and travel to England, where her grandson, Claude Cassirer, had relocated.
The grandmother and grandson eventually moved to the United States and, despite their efforts, were unable to track down the painting that once hung on the wall of Lilly’s apartment in Berlin, as shown in a photograph submitted to the court. Claude — Lilly’s sole heir after she died — discovered in 1999 that the painting of a Paris streetscape had been purchased by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, which was created and controlled by the Kingdom of Spain, and put on display at the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid.
Cassirer sued the Foundation for ownership and a return of the painting through court cases in Spain and California, where he lived, but to no avail. After his death in 2010, his children continued trying to obtain the painting, which is now worth tens of millions. The issue at the high court involved whether California or Spanish law applies to the case.
After hearing arguments on Cassirer vs. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation in January, the Supreme Court’s 9-0 ruling on Thursday reverts the case back to a lower court in Los Angeles. The Supreme Court said the case should be decided on based on California law, which will help the Cassirer family’s case. The plaintiffs argued that even a purchaser who unknowingly obtained stolen property “cannot prevail against the rightful pre-theft owner.”
“The path of our decision has been as short as the hunt for Rue Saint-Honoré was long,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan in the decision. “Our ruling is as simple as the conflict over its rightful owner has been vexed. A foreign state or instrumentality … is liable just as a private party would be. That means the standard choice-of-law rule must apply. In a property-law dispute like this one, that standard rule is the forum state’s (here, California’s) — not any deriving from federal common law.”
The Supreme Court justices overturned a ruling last year by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed with a federal judge in Los Angeles that the painting was lawfully obtained under Spanish law and should remain with the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid.