Pissarro painting at heart of Holocaust art drama

LA Times 15 May 2010
By Carol J. Williams

LA MESA, Calif. -- Claude Cassirer plants his walker on the worn floorboards of his tiny living room, rhythmically inching his way down the hall to his study. It is a short constitutional he takes each day to regard a gilt-framed memento of a lost life of privilege.

The frame holds a copy of an Impressionist masterpiece, "Rue Saint-Honore, Apres Midi, Effet de Pluie," by Camille Pissarro, which takes him back to his grandmother's lavishly furnished Berlin parlor in the 1920s. It was at the foot of the original painting -- depicting horse-drawn carriages on a rain-dappled Right Bank thoroughfare -- that Cassirer played as a child.

Cassirer, who is 89 this month, escaped Europe during Adolf Hitler's reign and ultimately settled in Cleveland. His grandmother, Lilly, was among the last of the family to flee the looming horrors of the Holocaust, and she was forced to surrender the Pissarro to a Nazi official in 1939 in exchange for an exit visa.

"My grandmother never knew what happened to the painting," Cassirer says of the 1897 Pissarro that his great-grandfather had purchased directly from the Caribbean-born Jewish artist.

His grandmother came to live with him and his wife in Cleveland. When she died in 1962, she left all she had to Cassirer -- including the rights to the purloined Pissarro, should it ever surface.

Cassirer says neither he nor his grandmother ever lost faith that the painting would one day be found. And in 2000, long after Cassirer and his wife had raised their two children, retired and moved to their ranch house in a San Diego suburb, an old acquaintance who had talked with him years before about the painting called from New York. She said she had found it.

"I was in shock," Cassirer says of the news.

A catalog of Pissarro's works noted it had been acquired by Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, a Swiss art collector and scion of Germany's Thyssen steel-making empire. The Pissarro had been leased to the Spanish government along with the rest of the baron's collection, the whole of which Spain bought in 1993 for $327 million.

"Rue Saint-Honore" has been displayed in a government-run museum near the famed Prado since then and reproduced for sales and promotions.

With only meager savings at their disposal, the Cassirers turned to the World Jewish Congress for help in approaching the government of Spain, a signatory to agreements to restore Nazi-looted artworks to their rightful owners.

"They have been most unfriendly, not cooperative in any way," Cassirer says of the Spaniards.

After fruitless efforts to persuade Madrid that he was the rightful owner, Cassirer filed suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in 2005 against Spain and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation. Although Spain signed accords promising restitution to victims of Nazi art expropriations, the country and foundation have fought Cassirer on jurisdictional grounds, claiming the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act protects them from U.S. court proceedings.

The painting's provenance after Cassirer's grandmother left Germany was as tortuous as the continent's history. Jakob Scheidwimmer, the Nazi-appointed Munich art dealer who forced her to "sell" it in 1939, traded the painting to another dealer who was persecuted by the Nazis and fled with it to Holland.

After Germany invaded Holland, the Gestapo seized the painting and returned it to Germany, where it was sold at auction to an anonymous buyer in 1943, according to court documents.

After the war, the German government voided the dubious 1939 sale and declared Lilly Cassirer Neubauer the rightful owner should the painting ever be found. The Bonn government in the late 1950s paid her token restitution of about $13,000, which she had to share with others thought to have acquired it legally after it was taken from her. The painting is now valued at $20 million.

Should the case go to trial, Spain is likely to argue that Cassirer's grandmother has already been compensated, but many legal experts believe the reparations paid by postwar Germany shouldn't affect the family's claim. That issue of jurisdiction is now before a full 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but a decision is probably still months away.

The painting surfaced at a New York gallery in 1952 and was sold to a private collector in St. Louis, then to an unknown dealer in 1976 and soon thereafter to Thyssen-Bornemisza. Spain paid the baron $50 million in 1988 to lease his collection for a decade, then bought it half way through.

The Spanish government has not commented. Citing the statute granting foreign states immunity from U.S. lawsuits except under a few defined conditions, a lawyer for the Thyssen-Bornemisza foundation said "we do not think that the case properly belongs in the U.S. courts." A federal district court and a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit disagreed.

Cassirer's lawyer concedes that the legal road ahead for his client could be a long one.

Cassirer, who tires too easily to travel to the court hearings in San Francisco, has no illusions about the likelihood of recovering the painting in his lifetime.

"I am 89," he says. "This is of great concern to me."
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