(CN) – Spain can’t claim immunity from a California man’s lawsuit to recover a Camille Pissarro painting that was allegedly looted by German Nazis in 1939 and is now on display in Madrid, the 9th Circuit ruled.
The Pasadena-based appellate panel ruled that although the work was stolen from Claude Cassirer’s grandmother by agents of Germany, and not Spain, a federal law that protects foreign countries from such lawsuits makes an exception for the recovery of property, regardless of which country allegedly stole it.
That means Spain can’t assert protection under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Judge N.R. Smith wrote, even though it didn’t actually steal the painting.
The court also ordered U.S. District Judge Gary Feess in Los Angeles to determine if Cassirer must first pursue his claims in Spain or Germany, not in the United States.
Cassirer sued Spain and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation to recover the painting, “Rue Saint–Honoré, Après–midi, Effet de Pluie,” now on display at the foundation’s museum in Madrid.
Cassirer said the painting was taken from his grandmother by Nazis, who demanded that she sell it for $360 before she could flee the country. The painting was then traded to an art dealer who also fled Germany to Holland and took the painting with him.
The painting was confiscated and returned to Germany, where it was sold at auction in 1943. It resurfaced at a New York gallery in 1952, and changed hands a few times before it was sold to Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, “a resident of Switzerland and one of the world’s foremost private art collectors,” the ruling states.
Spain paid $50 million in 1988 to lease the collector’s collection, and later paid $327 million for his entire collection.
Cassirer discovered that the painting was on display in 2000, but his request to Spanish officials that it be returned was denied. In 2003, five U.S. congressmen wrote to the minister asking for the return of the painting, but were again denied, according to the ruling.
Cassirer sued the foundation and Spain in May 2005 in Los Angeles Federal Court, but never filed suit in either Germany or Spain.
Spain and the foundation also challenged the denial of their motions to dismiss for lack of standing, jurisdiction and controversy, but the 9th Circuit said it couldn’t review those rulings, because there hasn’t been a final judgment.