Californian files suit against Spain, museum over looted painting

Chicago Tribune 11 May 2005

CHICAGO - (KRT) - For the first time since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that foreign governments can be sued in American courts for art looted during the Holocaust, a California man on Tuesday sued the kingdom of Spain and a museum it controls for a painting he values at $20 million.

Claude Cassirer - an 84-year-old retired photographer who lives in San Diego - says in a suit filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles that his family owned Camille Pissarro's "Rue Saint-Honore, apres-midi, effet de pluie" since 1898, a year after the celebrated Impressionist painted the famous street scene.

Cassirer in 2001 petitioned the Spanish government for recovery of the work, which hangs in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, but he was rebuffed.

"They kept saying `sue us,'" said Cassirer, who spoke via phone from Cleveland, where he was visiting relatives. 

 "But I think they wanted us to sue in Spanish courts.

"We decided to sue here."

That action was made possible by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2004, allowing Holocaust survivor Maria Bloch-Bauer Altmann to sue the Austrian government for six paintings by the Viennese master Gustav Klimt, which were looted by the Nazis. The Supreme Court decision stated that victims of theft can seek remedy in U.S. courts under particular circumstances: The plaintiffs must show that the property was taken in violation of international law and that it is "owned or operated" by an agency of a foreign state.

Both those stipulations, and others, appear to apply in Cassirer's suit against Spain and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

"The Altmann case is a relatively good precedent for them," said lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg, who argued Altmann's case before the Supreme Court.

"Though the Altmann case has been cited in other opinions, it just has been tangentially. This is the first looted-art case to use Altmann as a precedent."

A spokesman at the Ministry of Culture in Madrid declined to discuss the litigation.

"At the moment, we cannot say anything about this matter, because the Spanish government does not have official information about the lawsuit," said the culture ministry spokesman, who asked not to be identified while speaking by phone from Madrid.

Cassirer's grandmother, Lilly Cassirer Neubauer, kept the painting in her home in Berlin in the 1920s and Munich in the '30s, Claude Cassirer said, recalling that he spent a large part of his youth in both places. But in 1939 the Jewish family fled Nazi Germany, and she was forced to turn over the painting to an appraiser appointed by the Nazis, according to the lawsuit.

Cassirer's grandmother failed to locate the painting after the war, but the West German government recognized her ownership by compensating her for the loss. She died in 1962, naming Claude Cassirer her sole heir.

In 1976, the suit alleges, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza purchased the painting from New York art dealer Stephen Hahn.

The same dealer is cited in another lawsuit regarding Nazi looting. Hahn sold Picasso's "Femme en blanc" ("Woman in White") in 1975 to Chicago art collector Marilynn Alsdorf, who has been sued by Thomas Bennigson for ownership of the $10 million oil painting; that litigation is proceeding in federal court in California and is also pending before the California Supreme Court.

Hahn, reached by phone in California, declined to comment.

Said Cassirer, "To win this case, would mean to me that there is some matter of justice."

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