Trial is expected to begin Tuesday in litigation brought by the San Diego heir of a Jewish art collector against the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Spain, alleging that a painting which hangs there was looted from his family almost 80 years ago by the Nazis and should be returned.
Camille Pissarro’s “Rue Saint-Honore: Afternoon, Rain Effect,” which depicts a 19th century Paris street scene and is valued at over $30 million, has been housed at the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid since 1993.
According to the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles federal court in 2005, the Nazis confiscated the painting from Lilly Cassirer, whose Jewish family owned a prominent art gallery in Berlin in the 1930s. Lilly Cassirer was among the last of the family to flee ahead of the Holocaust. As she tried to leave Germany, a Nazi official forced her to surrender the painting in exchange for the exit visa she needed. Her sister, who remained, was later killed in a Nazi death camp.
During the war, the painting was sold by the Nazis to an anonymous buyer, and the Cassirer family believed it was lost until a family friend saw it hanging at the museum 18 years ago.
Court documents show that Swiss industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza purchased the painting in 1976 from a St. Louis art collector. Years later, Spain bought Thyssen-Bornemisza’s collection to hang at his namesake museum, which repeatedly refused to return the painting to the Cassirer family, according to the lawsuit.
Five years after Claude Cassirer, Lilly’s grandson — a part-time resident of Coronado — filed suit, a judge dismissed the case. That decision was overturned in 2013 by a federal appeals court, setting the stage for the non-jury trial scheduled to begin Tuesday. Since Claude has died, his 64-year-old son, David Cassirer, has become the plaintiff, along with the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County.
The Cassirer family originally filed the lawsuit following a Supreme Court decision allowing U.S. citizens to sue foreign governments in federal court over art plundered by the the Nazis. The main issue at trial is expected to be the provenance of the piece: What did the museum know about the painting’s tangled history and when did they know it?
David Boies, who represented Al Gore in the fight over the 2000 presidential election and argued on behalf of gay marriage before the Supreme Court, is representing David Cassirer. In an interview, he told the Los Angeles Times that he’ll argue at trial that the failure on the part of the baron and Spanish officials to heed clues pointing to the painting’s history amounted to “willful blindness.”
Most telling, Boies said, are the remains of labels on the back of the painting, which have been torn or fallen off over the years. One of the partial labels, which are typically affixed to track ownership as a painting changes hands, is from the art gallery Lilly Cassirer’s father and a relative ran in Berlin. Boies also highlighted records from the baron’ archives that, he said, show the baron deliberately falsified where he bought the painting in an effort to conceal its history.
To win the case, Boies must convince the judge the baron or museum officials were so negligent that under Spanish law they amount to being accessories, however distant, to the Nazis’ theft of the painting.
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