The Supreme Court ruled Thursday for a California family seeking to recover a Pissarro painting looted by a Nazi official in 1939 and eventually put on display in a Spanish museum.
The 9-0 ruling does not resolve the dispute but sends the case back to a courtroom in Los Angeles to decide the matter based on California law, which is more favorable to the family.
The justices set aside a ruling that said the painting had been lawfully obtained under Spanish law.
Attorney David Boies, in his appeal to the high court, argued that under California law, “thieves cannot pass good title to anyone, including a good faith purchaser.”
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court, said the Cassirer family had spent decades in search of Camille Pissarro’s painting of a Paris street scene that hung in a Berlin apartment when the Nazis took power.
“The path of our decision has been as short as the hunt for Rue Saint-Honoré was long,” she said. “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).”
The case was Cassirer vs. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation.
“It’s a happy morning,” said David Cassirer upon hearing of the ruling. He carried on the family’s lawsuit along with the Jewish Federation of San Diego. “We thought this case is very important to send the message that museums and government should not be permitted to hoard art that was looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust,” he said. “And we’re gratified with the court’s ruling on the choice of law.”
Last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a federal judge in Los Angeles that the painting should remain with the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection at a state-owned museum in Madrid. The judges did so by applying Spanish law.
The painting had been brought to the U.S. illegally after the war, and it was sold by a Beverly Hills gallery in 1951. The Stephen Hahn Gallery in New York arranged for its sale in 1976 to Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza, a Swiss art collector and the heir to a German steel empire.
In 1993, he sold his collection of more than 775 paintings for $340 million to Spain, where they would be exhibited at a new museum in Madrid. The artworks were displayed publicly for more than six years, a key issue under Spanish law.
But all the while, Claude Cassirer had been searching for the lost painting that hung on the wall of his grandmother Lilly’s apartment in Berlin. She turned over the painting to a Nazi official in 1939 to obtain a visa out of Germany. Separately, her grandson escaped to Britain and then to Cleveland after the war.
When Lilly Cassirer died, she left 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 filed suit in 2005 in a federal court in Los Angeles seeking to recover the painting, valued at $30 million.
The state-owned museum sought to have the suit thrown out based on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which usually protects foreign governments from being sued. But the law has an “expropriation exception” for property confiscated in violation of international law.
But U.S. District Judge John Walter ruled that under Spanish law, the museum had openly purchased the paintings and put them them on display in public for years. While the baron had “reasons for suspicion” that the painting may have been stolen and the museum “may have been irresponsible” in failing to investigate its history, Walter said neither had “actual knowledge” that the painting had been essentially stolen by the Nazis.
Under the court’s ruling Thursday, the case will be sent back to the 9th Circuit, which is then likely to return it to a federal judge in Los Angeles.