LOS ANGELES (CN) – An attorney for a Spanish museum housing a painting stolen from a Jewish family by Nazis in 1939 told a federal judge Tuesday the museum is the rightful owner of the piece and acquired it in good faith.
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza attorney Fernando Perez de la Sota said the museum wouldn’t have accepted the painting if it knew it was looted by the Nazis, adding “anyone that knows the history of Europe” knows the Nazis pillaged entire art collections across the continent during World War II.
The painting, “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain” by Camille Pissarro, once belonged to Lilly Cassirer, a Jewish woman who was forced to turn over the painting to the Nazis in 1939 in exchange for her family’s safe passage out of Germany during the Holocaust.
Cassirer’s sister, however, did not escape and was killed at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
In 1948, five years after the painting was sold at a Gestapo auction in Berlin, the family filed an ownership claim with a tribunal set up by Allied forces.
The tribunal decided in 1954 that the Cassirers were rightful owners but believed the painting was lost, and the family accepted a $13,000 payment from Germany.
In 2000, however, Lilly’s grandson Claude Cassirer found the painting hanging at the Thyssen in Madrid.
Claude Cassirer filed his 2005 federal lawsuit after his request to retrieve the painting for his family was rejected.
Pissarro’s 1897 masterpiece is the jewel of a collection of works once owned by the museum’s founder, Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. Thyssen-Bornemisza purchased the Pissarro in 1976 from the Hahn Gallery in New York.
De la Sota said the museum – under pressure from a Spanish government looking to avoid scandals around Nazi-plundered works – conducted an investigation into the provenance of paintings acquired after 1980 but found no ownership claims in a lost art registry.
But the Cassirers’ attorney, David Boies of the firm Boies Schiller, said the museum failed to fully examine the painting and documents that misrepresented its history.
Under cross-examination by Boies, De la Sota said the museum had not examined the invoice from the baron’s purchase of the painting and had not investigated provenance before the purchase.
Boies said a blue label on the back of the painting tied it to a Berlin gallery owned by the Cassirer family but was overlooked by museum experts. The label was later covered with cardboard.
“In 1992, did the kingdom [of Spain] and the museum know about the label from Berlin,” Boies asked De la Sota.
“The experts from the kingdom did but [museum] lawyers did not,” De la Sota said. “[Museum lawyers] only looked at documents, not the art.”
Lynn Nicholas, a provenance expert hired by the museum, testified the label did not definitively connect the painting to the Cassirers’ Berlin gallery.
“It was not a commonly known label and the [Cassirers’ gallery] only existed for three years,” Nicolas said. “[The label] doesn’t mean [the Cassirers] owned the painting.”
Boies also asked Nicholas why Thyssen-Bornemisza wrote in his personal ledger of art purchases that the painting was bought in Paris when in fact he had purchased it in New York.
“I don’t think the Paris gallery entry was deliberate by the baron,” Nicholas said.
Defendants are represented by Thaddeus Stauber of Nixon Peabody.
U.S. District Judge John F. Walter initially dismissed the case in 2006, finding California’s 6-year statute of limitations for claims to recover looted artwork was pre-empted by the Foreign Affairs Doctrine.
The Ninth Circuit unanimously reversed Walter’s decision in 2013 and remanded the case for trial. The panel held California’s statute of limitations did not intrude on the federal government’s foreign affairs power.
Walter will decide in the coming months whether the painting should return to the Cassirer family.