Court Rules Against Returning Nazi-Looted Pissarro Painting to Jewish Family

Sold in exchange for exit visas in 1939, the estimated $30 million masterpiece will stay at a Spanish museum

Pissarro Painting: 1182328959
Camille Pissarro's Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain (1897) hangs at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. Quim Llenas / Getty Images

A federal appeals court has ruled that a Spanish museum can keep a Camille Pissarro painting stolen from a Jewish family during World War II.

The ruling was a blow to the family, which has been advocating for the painting’s return for more than 20 years, reports the Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Rector. On January 9, the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, California, decided unanimously that the artwork would remain at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which acquired it in 1993.

The painting in question is Pissarro’s Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain (1897). According to the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Alex Riggins, it may be worth over $30 million.

Pissarro painted the bustling street scene from the window of his Paris hotel. For more than four decades, the Impressionist masterpiece belonged to the family of Lilly Cassirer. In 1939, the Nazis forced her to sell the painting to an art dealer in Berlin in exchange for 900 Reichsmarks ($360 today) and an exit visa to England. She never received the payment, which was placed into a bank account she was not allowed to access.

After the war, Lilly sued to reclaim the painting, but it was thought to have been lost in bombings. According to the New York Times’ Christopher Kuo, the West German government eventually paid the family the equivalent of $265,000 in today’s dollars for the loss of the work. Lilly died in 1966 without ever finding out what happened to it.

In 2000, her grandson, California resident Claude Cassirer, learned the painting was on view at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Born in 1921, he had memories of the Pissarro hanging at his grandmother’s apartment—and a photograph to prove it, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. When he contacted Spain’s culture ministry, officials decided against returning the work. Claude filed a lawsuit in 2005.

The high-profile case has since taken a circuitous journey through the legal system. Following Claude’s death in 2010, the case has been managed by his son, David, his daughter, Ava (who died in 2018), and the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County.

The central question for the courts was whether to apply Spanish law or California law. Under Spanish law, as long as the museum acquired the painting in good faith and was unaware of the theft, it would retain ownership. California law, however, would require the painting’s return.

Lower courts initially ruled in favor of the museum, concluding the case should be determined by Spanish law. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately took up the case, sending it back to the Ninth Circuit in 2022.

Last week, the federal appeals court ruled that Spanish law applied. While the decision was unanimous, one judge, Consuelo Callahan, wrote in a concurring opinion that Spain should have “voluntarily relinquished” the painting, even though it was under no legal obligation to do so. “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.”

In a statement, the family’s attorneys say they were dismayed by the decision, which “fails to explain how Spain has any interest in applying its laws to launder ownership of the spoils of war, a practice outlawed in the Hague Convention of 1907, and a series of other international agreements joined by Spain for over a century,” per the L.A. Times. Meanwhile, the museum’s attorneys say that the court’s decision was “a welcome conclusion to this case.”

The family plans to keep fighting, and the Cassirers’ lawyers say they will seek a review by an 11-judge Ninth Circuit panel.

Last week’s decision “gives a green light to looters around the world,” say the family’s lawyers. “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.”

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