American Says Painting in Spain is Holocaust Loot

The New York Times 10 February 2003
Emma Daly

MADRID — The Spanish government is refusing to discuss an American citizen's claim to be the rightful owner of an Impressionist masterpiece stolen by the Nazis and now hanging in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum here. The museum is obviously proud of the work, "Rue St.-Honoré, Après-Midi, Effet de Pluie," a Parisian street scene painted by Camille Pissarro in 1897.

"Masterworks," a book dedicated to the best pieces in the Thyssen collection, highlights the Pissarro work and says, "The relationship between the modernization of Paris completed under Napoleon III and the new Impressionist painting achieves its finest representation in this painting." But the museum has little to say about the picture's previous owners. Its catalog entry reads: "Galerie Joseph Hahn, 1976, Thyssen collection," omitting nearly 80 years of history.

Claude Cassirer, an 81-year-old retired photographer in San Diego, can fill in at least the first 40 years: as a child he played in his grandmother's apartment in Germany, where this painting held pride of place until it was seized by Nazi agents. But despite a persistent claim to the Pissarro painting, the Spanish authorities say that the museum is the legal owner and that any claim should be made in the courts, a response that has drawn criticism from American lawyers familiar with the claim.

"The reaction of the Spanish government is quite astonishing," said Charles Goldstein, special counsel to Ronald S. Lauder, who heads the Commission for Art Recovery, based in New York. "Why should a government that already has a law relating to the return of Holocaust property refuse to have a discussion on the issue?"

Lawyers assisting in the Cassirer claim note that Spain, which aggressively pursues stolen Spanish art, is party to at least four international agreements aimed at restoring looted artworks to their rightful owners. Three are aimed at Holocaust victims. Principles adopted at Washington in December 1998 require states to act "expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution," and the follow-up forum in Vilnius, Lithuania, in October 2000 asked governments "to undertake every reasonable effort to achieve the restitution of cultural assets looted during the Holocaust era to the original owners or their heirs." The Council of Europe's Resolution 1205 of 1999 says, "Bodies in receipt of government funds which find themselves holding looted Jewish cultural property should return it" or pay compensation at the full market value. Full market value for "Rue St.-Honoré" might be as much as $6 million, a leading auction house said, although family members said it could be worth more.

"It is also of great emotional value," Mr. Cassirer said in a telephone interview. "Everything was lost in Europe, my family, my life." As a child, he said, he often played in the apartment. "It was part of my life," he said, "and I want the painting back for no other reason than that."

Mr. Cassirer's great-grandfather, Julius Cassirer, bought the work from Durand-Ruel, Pissarro's Paris dealer, only a few months after it was painted. The Cassirers, a family of publishers and gallery owners, imported many major Impressionist works into Germany. This particular Pissarro painting was inherited by Julius's son Friedrich, and when he died in 1927 passed to his widow, Lilly, a distant cousin and herself a Cassirer. Claude, still a baby when his mother died in the influenza epidemic that ravaged postwar Europe, spent much of his childhood with his grandmother, Lilly, and remembers the picture well.

Although Claude Cassirer and his father left Germany for Britain shortly after Hitler's rise to power, Lilly and her second husband, Otto Neubauer, remained in Munich. In 1939 they were forced to surrender the painting to the Nazis before fleeing to England. The painting was auctioned by the Gestapo in 1943, Mr. Cassirer said. After the war Lilly Cassirer took legal action to reclaim the work, and in 1958 the West German government acknowledged her to be the legal owner of the painting, paying her 120,000 German marks to compensate her suffering. Under the agreement, she retained full rights to the painting, but she died in 1962 without having found the work, leaving Claude as her sole heir.

Almost four decades later a friend of Mr. Cassirer bought a book about Pissarro with a photo of "Rue St.-Honoré." "We were very excited when we found out about this," Mr. Cassirer recalled. But that was in 2000, and "we've been fighting them ever since."

Lawyers in the Madrid office of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, who represent the Commission for Art Recovery, said they had passed the claim and all the supporting documentation on to the Spanish Culture Ministry and to the Thyssen Foundation, a body set up in 1993 by the Spanish government, which paid $338 million to buy Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen's collection. The Thyssen Foundation replied with a fax saying that the baron had bought the painting legally.

A ministry official wrote that the painting was the sole responsibility of the foundation. Eight of the foundation's 12 trustees are appointed by the government, and the chairman is the minister of culture.

The Thyssen Museum refused requests for an interview, though the curator, Tomas Llorens, issued this statement, "Advisers to the museum have examined the request and assured us there is no legal basis to the claim, a response we have passed on to the family." The Culture Ministry refused requests for interviews with the minister and three other officials who sit on the Thyssen board.

A spokesman for the ministry said there was no legal basis for the Cassirer claim, saying that it was beyond the statute of limitations, and that the foundation held good title to the painting. He suggested that Mr. Cassirer file a lawsuit.

But the commission's Madrid lawyers said there was no statute of limitations, since the case fell under Spain's extensive genocide laws, and that Spain's criminal and civil code required the restitution of stolen property, even if held by a third party in good faith. "We are trying not to take the government to court but to encourage it to comply with the various international treaties Spain has signed," said Juan Picon of Squire, Sanders in Madrid. "But we think their arguments would be very easily dismissed."

The Spanish diplomat who led his delegation to the Washington and Vilnius conferences has been assigned abroad, and Foreign Ministry officials would not comment.

But Mr. Cassirer is a determined man. After completing his education in Britain, he was visiting France when war broke out. Traveling with a German passport marked with a J for Jew, he was interned as an enemy alien but managed to get to Morocco, where he survived typhoid fever before sailing for America.
"Fortunately I was always a little step ahead of Hitler," he said, "but it wasn't easy." Now his two children are preparing to continue his struggle: "So don't think this will die with me."
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