Californian sues Spain and museum seeking return of art allegedly seized by Nazis

Associated Press 10 May 2005
By PAUL CHAVEZ Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) - An 84-year-old man filed a lawsuit against Spain and a museum Tuesday demanding the return of an 1897 painting by Camille Pissarro he claims the Nazis took from his family.

In his lawsuit, Claude Cassirer of San Diego claims that the Impressionist artist's «Rue Saint-Honore, Afternoon, Rain Effect» was stolen from his Jewish grandmother through a forced sale and now hangs at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, Spain.

«This painting was in my family for four decades before the Nazis stole it,» Cassirer said in a statement. «They took it because they were determined not just to kill Jews but also to kill Jewish culture.»

By refusing to return the painting, the Spanish government and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation are «continuing the Nazi legacy instead of going out of their way to repudiate it,» Cassirer said.

The painting has an estimated value of about $20 million (¤15.56 million), partly because of Pissarro's historical significance, said David Cassirer, the son of the plaintiff and a family spokesman.

It depicts a wide Parisian boulevard lined with dark carriages, a few bare trees and a scattering of people braving the weather.

A telephone call to the Spanish consulate's office in Los Angeles was not immediately returned. The museum and Spanish Ministry of Culture were closed and could not be reached for comment.

The lawsuit was bolstered by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last June that allowed California resident Maria Altmann, 88, to sue Austria to retrieve $150 million (¤116.7 million) worth of Gustav Klimt paintings stolen by the Nazis, said Stuart Dunwoody, one of Cassirer's attorneys.

An estimated 600,000 works of art were stolen by the Nazis during Adolf Hitler's rule in Germany.
The Pissarro painting was bought by Claude Cassirer's great-grandfather shortly after its creation and inherited by his grandmother, Lilly Cassirer, in 1926 after the death of her husband, Fritz Cassirer, according to the lawsuit. A family photograph apparently shows the painting displayed in her Berlin apartment.

Claude Cassirer was raised by his grandmother and became her sole heir, according to his son. The family was prominent in Germany until they were driven out by the Nazis in the 1930s.

Bruno Cassirer, who ran an art publishing house, and his nephew, Paul, an art dealer, championed the Impressionists and helped expand their influence beyond the movement's origins in France.

As Nazi oppression against Jews mounted, the plaintiff's grandmother, who had remarried and was then known as Lilly Cassirer Neubauer, fled to England.

Her sister, Hannchen, stayed behind to care for their mother and later was sent to the Theresienstadt extermination camp where she died.

As a precondition for leaving Germany, Lilly Cassirer Neubauer was forced to sell the Pissarro painting for about $360 at 1939 exchange rates, the lawsuit states. But she was not allowed to take the payment with her because it was paid into a blocked account.

The painting changed hands several times since the war and its whereabouts were a mystery to the Cassirer family until a friend spotted it in the Madrid museum.

It had been bought in 1976 by Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, who owned one of the largest art collections in the world, the suit said. It is now displayed at a museum run by the foundation.

The lawsuit said Spain is named as a defendant because the foundation is «an agency and instrumentality» of the country.

Spain co-founded the museum'd foundation through its Ministry of Culture, provided money, gave a palace for use as a museum and mandated that at least two-thirds of the foundation's board be representatives of the Kingdom of Spain, the lawsuit said.

David Cassirer said the family has been discussing the case with Spanish authorities since 2001, and decided to sue after realizing the painting was not going to be returned.
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