Supreme Court sides with German Jewish heirs in case over art stolen by Nazis

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The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with the descendants of a Jewish art collector seeking to reclaim a valuable painting that was stolen by the Nazis in 1939.

A unanimous court revived a lawsuit by the descendants of the Cassirer family arguing that a Spanish museum that’s holding the impressionist painting by Camille Pissarro should be forced to turn over the stolen property.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the unanimous decision, overturning lower court decisions involving complex legal issues around whether to decide the case under the property laws of Spain or California, where the lawsuit was filed. Kagan wrote that even though the museum in question is operated by Spain, it should be treated the same as a private entity in the case and thus subject to California’s laws.

The Cassirers’ saga to reclaim the painting, “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain,” has spanned nearly eight decades. The German Jewish art collector Paul Cassirer purchased it from Pissarro in 1900.

His heir, Lilly Cassirer, was forced to sell the painting in 1939 to Nazi authorities for just $360 in order to obtain approval to flee the country. The painting is now worth an estimated $40 million.

“We are obviously pleased,” said attorney David Boies in a statement. “It is a great day for the Cassirer family and for all who care about justice.”

After World War II, a restitution court recognized Cassirer as the rightful owner of the artwork, but it would be another half century before the family would find the painting.

The piece changed hands numerous times in the years after the war. In the 90’s, a German collector who purchased the painting, which had been held by a museum in St. Louis, sold it to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, started by the Kingdom of Spain.

Claude Cassirer, Lilly’s grandson who was living in California, sued the Spanish foundation in 2005. But a district court judge and a federal appeals court ruled that foreign sovereign immunity law required the case to be decided under Spanish law, which would have been much less hospitable to Cassirer’s claims than California law.

“The path of our decision has been as short as the hunt for Rue Saint-Honoré was long; our ruling is as simple as the conflict over its rightful owner has been vexed,” Kagan wrote in her opinion. “A foreign state or instrumentality in an [Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act] suit is liable just as a private party would be.”

—Updated at 1 p.m.

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