Madrid museum to appeal LA ruling on disputed Pissarro painting

1945 8 September 2006
Mar Roman (AP)

One of the world's top museums said Friday it will appeal a Los Angeles court decision to keep open a lawsuit seeking the return of a disputed Pissarro masterpiece reportedly stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish family during World War II.

The case involves ownership of "Rue St.-Honore, Apres-Midi, Effet de Pluie," a Parisian street scene painted by the impressionist artist in 1897. The painting is estimated to be worth $20 million.

On Aug. 30, a court in Los Angeles rejected a motion by the Spanish government to dismiss a lawsuit by Claude Cassirer of San Diego, who says that his family is the rightful owner. Cassirer, 85, says his grandmother was forced to sell the painting in 1939 for what was then $360 as a precondition of her fleeing Germany.

The painting has been on display at Madrid's state-owned Thyssen-Bornemisza museum since 1993, when the Spanish government paid $250 million to buy the Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen's collection. The museum boasts one of the richest collection of artworks in the world.

"We are the owners of this painting," Carlos Fernandez de Henestrosa, managing director of the Thyssen Foundation, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

"We have documents that prove that the Baron Thyssen was the legitimate buyer in 1976. It is ours until proven otherwise," he said.

Fernandez de Henestrosa would not comment on Cassirer's claim that the painting was stolen nearly three decades before the baron's purchase.

He said lawyers representing both the Thyssen Museum and the Spanish government in the United States will appeal the ruling in the next few days, adding that he believes the U.S. court should not have jurisdiction in the case, since the painting is in Spain.

He also questioned why Cassirer waited so long to make his claim.

"The painting has been on display publicly for more than 25 years. We've never hidden it and it has been exhibited in other countries," he said. "If. Mr. Cassirer was so interested in it, he could have found the painting very easily."

Lawyers for Cassirer said Spain's claim to own the painting is "wishful thinking."

"Since the painting has been stolen property since the Nazis looted it, the dealer who sold it to the Baron couldn't transfer ownership to him, nor could the Baron give ownership to the museum," attorney Stuart Dunwoody said in a statement.

He also called it "extraordinarily insensitive" for the museum to say Cassirer should have come forward sooner, saying he learned of the painting's whereabouts from a friend in 2000.

"As soon as he learned the painting was in the museum, he requested its return. The museum refused, leaving Mr. Cassirer no choice but to bring this lawsuit."

"It is time for Spain and the museum to show by their actions that the Spanish government is not simply paying lip service to the principles of returning art looted during the Holocaust to its rightful owners," Dunwoody wrote.

The 1897 painting depicts a Parisian boulevard lined with dark carriages, a few bare trees and a scattering of people braving the weather. It apparently changed hands several times after the war and its whereabouts were a mystery to the Cassirer family until a friend spotted it in the Madrid museum in 2000.

The baron bought it in 1976 at a New York Gallery and included it in the 800 works sold to the Spanish government in 1993, Fernandez de Henestrosa said. The baron died in 2002.

Cassirer's lawsuit was bolstered by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2004 that allowed California resident Maria Altmann, 88, to sue the government of Austria to retrieve $150 million worth of Gustav Klimt paintings stolen by the Nazis. The five Klimts were handed over by Austria in January to Altmann and other family members following a seven-year legal battle.

An estimated 600,000 works of art were looted by the Nazis during Adolf Hitler's rule in Germany.
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