US Court rules Madrid museum can keep Nazi-looted Pissaro painting

In 1939, Germany's Nazis told Lilly Cassirer Neubauer that she could obtain exit visas out of Germany only if she handed over an 1897 Camille Pissarro painting, Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon. Effect of Rain, which had been in her family for decades. An appraiser who worked for the Nazis said the painting was worth $360, and put the funds in an account that Cassirer Neubauer had no access to.

The looted painting was sold and resold a number of times. In 1993, a non-profit foundation in Spain bought the looted painting from Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. The foundation put the painting on display at the Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid, where it hangs today.

In 2000, Cassirer Neubauer's grandson Claude Cassirer, who lives in California, found out the painting, now worth $30 million, was at the museum and requested its return. The museum refused, kicking off a legal battle that culminated at the ninth US circuit court of appeals in Pasadena, California. There, the court ruled unanimously that the museum did not have to return the stolen painting, citing Spanish law that says if you possess something for three years without anyone contesting it, it's yours.

From the Jewish Telegraphic Agency:

Circuit Judge Carlos Bea said Tuesday that Spain's concern with granting "certainty of title" took precedence over California's preference for discouraging theft and recovering stolen art for victims who live there. He specifically cited that the Museo Thyssen had "in good faith" owned and displayed the painting for three years before the Cassirers brought forth a lawsuit challenging its provenance, which, according to Spanish law, means the museum is the rightful owner.

In her concurring opinion, Circuit Judge Consuelo Callahan said that Spain should have voluntarily relinquished the painting.

"Sometimes our oaths of office and an appreciation of our proper roles as appellate judges require that we concur in a result at odds with our moral compass," she wrote. "For me, this is such a situation."

From Reuters:

Lawyers for the Cassirers in a joint statement said Tuesday's decision "fails to explain how Spain has any interest in applying its laws to launder ownership of the spoils of war." They plan to seek review by an 11-judge 9th Circuit panel.

"The Cassirers believe that, especially in light of the explosion of antisemitism in this country and around the world today, they must challenge Spain's continuing insistence on harboring Nazi looted art," the lawyers said.

In 2020, the Arkell Museum in upstate New York returned a painting by artist Gari Melchers, which had been stolen from a Jewish family fleeing Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.

Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain in Lilly Neubauer's home in Berlin. (Image via court records)