High Court hears Nazi-stolen painting case

WASHINGTON (AP) — A California man and a Spanish museum locked in a dispute over a valuable Impressionist masterpiece stolen by the Nazis should be able to agree on one thing, Judge Stephen Breyer said Tuesday during oral arguments in court. supreme.

“Can everyone agree that this is a beautiful painting?” Breyer asked near the end of an hour of arguments. The painting is a streetscape, now worth millions, by French impressionist Camille Pissarro.

The case itself is not directly about ownership of the painting, but about how to decide the case, which has been going on since 2005. The lower courts had sided with the museum.

On the other side is San Diego resident David Cassirer. His great-grandmother Lilly Cassirer Neubauer, a German Jew, at one time owned Pissarro’s oil painting. The 1897 piece, whose title translates to “Rue Saint-Honoré in the afternoon, effect of the rain”, is part of a series of 15 that Pissarro painted of a Paris street seen from the window of his hotel.

In 1939, in order to secure visas for her and her husband to leave Germany, Neubauer was forced to turn the piece over to a Nazi art appraiser. She was paid around $360, well below the value of the painting, and the money was paid into an account she could not access.

The painting has changed hands several times since then, but it is now part of the collection of a Spanish museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid, which has fought to preserve it. He is said to be worth over $30 million.

Lower courts found the museum to be the rightful owner of the painting while criticizing Spain for failing to honor its commitments to return Nazi-looted art.

Even if Cassirer wins in the High Court and has the support of the Biden administration, a lower court ruling saying Spanish law applies in the case may mean he ultimately loses, said Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

“I believe the district court said California law and federal common law will adopt Spanish law. Why are we here if you lose both?” she asked Cassirer’s attorney, David Boies. Boies said a federal appeals court failed to address the issue of California law.

Sotomayor and Boies were participating remotely, Sotomayor from his office – likely due to coronavirus concerns – and Boies by phone due to a positive coronavirus test.

Boies is the third attorney to plead by telephone due to a positive test since the court resumed hearing arguments in person in October after more than a year and a half of hearing arguments by telephone. The court does not allow the public to attend oral arguments and litigators must test negative.

For many years, Pissarro’s painting would have been lost or destroyed during the war. In 1958, Neubauer reached a monetary settlement with the German government, but she did not waive her rights to try to pursue the painting if she presented herself.

In fact, the painting had traveled to the United States, where it spent 25 years in the hands of various collectors before being purchased in 1976 by Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza of Lugano, Switzerland. In 1993, the painting was one of 775 works sold by the baron to Spain for over $300 million. The Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, a renovated palace, houses the collection.

In 2000, Neubauer’s grandson Claude Cassirer discovered that the painting was not lost but on display in the museum. Spain rejected his attempts to get him back, however, and he eventually sued in the United States. Claude Cassirer died in 2010. It is his son David who is now fighting for the return of the play.

The case is David Cassirer v. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, 20-1566.

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