October 17, 2018

Pasadena trial focuses on Nazi-looted masterpiece

When David Cassirer was a child, he and his sister, Ava, would make voyages across the Atlantic Ocean to England on the Queen Mary to visit their great-grandmother, Lilly, a German Jew who fled Nazi Germany in 1939.

“It was great fun to do this trip. Imagine … playing shuffleboard, getting into trouble on the ship, swimming in the pool,” remembered Cassirer, who is now 62 and splits his time between California and Colorado. “It was a great adventure.”

Decades later, Cassirer has found himself embroiled in a much more serious exploit involving his late great-grandmother. Playing out in federal appeals court instead of an ocean liner, it involves a Nazi-looted piece of art worth more than $30 million and the dramatic story behind how it came to hang in a Madrid museum.

At the center of the court case — David Cassirer v. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, which began Dec. 5 in Pasadena at the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit — is an 1897 impressionist masterpiece by Camille Pissarro. Known as “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain,” the Paris streetscape belonged to Lilly before she fled the Nazis. In fact, she and her second husband, Otto, traded it for exit visas in 1939 following Kristallnacht.

Later, the piece was smuggled into the United States, where it was traded among specialists in Nazi-looted artwork in galleries in Los Angeles and New York until 1976, when it was purchased by Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, “an individual whose family had long-standing ties to the Nazi regime and who had trafficked in Nazi stolen art,” according to Cassirer’s attorneys.

In 1992, Thyssen-Bornemisza opened a museum with his extensive collection, the Pissarro included, in a building offered by the Spanish state. In 1993, the Spanish government acquired the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection.

The Cassirer family discovered the painting’s existence in 1999 after a friend of Cassirer’s late father, Claude (Lilly’s grandson), saw the painting in a museum catalog and notified the family. The family had thought the piece was destroyed during the war.

The current appellate case follows a 2015 decision that dismissed Cassirer’s claim that the Cassirer painting belongs to him and his family.

The family has been trying to reclaim the painting for close to two decades. It is one of many instances of Jewish families affected by the Holocaust attempting to gain back artwork that was taken from them due to the circumstances of the Shoah.

Local attorney Randy Schoenberg — whose grandfather, Arnold, knew the Cassirers before the war started, at a time when the Cassirers were active in Berlin’s cultural scene — is famous for winning back the Gustav Klimt painting popularly known as “Woman in Gold” for his survivor client Maria Altmann. He told the Journal he hopes the outcome is similar for the Cassirers.

“Anything can happen in these cases at any time,” he told the Journal. “It’s very tough and sad. This is a case where the painting was forced away from the Cassirers originally and never been returned. I think if you look at it from that simple perspective — property taken, never returned — it would be very, very sad if no legal remedy recognized that wrong.”

In 1958, the German government gave $13,000 to Lilly to cover the painting’s loss. However, U.S. District Judge John F. Walter, who concluded in 2015 the painting belonged to the museum, acknowledged Lilly accepted this payment without knowing the painting still existed.

Cassirer’s current defense team includes notable attorney David Boies, who argued on the side of Al Gore in Bush v. Gore and for the unconstitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriage. Their argument is that the museum’s claim to the painting — that it has been in the collection for more than six years and thus, under prescriptive Spanish law, belongs to the museum — is void: The museum, even if it purchased the piece not knowing it was looted work, benefits by having the painting and is thus an accessory to the theft, Boies said in court on Monday.

No one is disputing that the painting was stolen from Lilly, not even the museum’s attorney, Thaddeus J. Stauber.

Lilly died in 1962, and her only child, Eva, became her heir. When Eva died, Claude, who used to play in Lilly’s parlor in Berlin in the 1920s, where the Pissarro painting hung on the wall, became the heir. Claude died recently and David Cassirer, his sister and the Jewish Federation of San Diego County became the heirs.

As to what the family plans to do if they win back the painting, Cassirer said he does not know for certain yet. All he knows is that the museum, what with its name being associated with a family that helped finance the Nazis, is not the place for it.

“No matter what happens, I hope it will continue to be able to be seen by people but not in the hands of the Spanish government and the Thyssen museum. My family feels very strongly the museum knowingly accepted this painting into their collection when they would have easily and no doubt did know this was Nazi-looted art when they took it in. We don’t think that behavior should be rewarded on our level, a Jewish level, the case level, the Holocaust level,” he said. “On so many levels this behavior should not be rewarded and is one of the reasons I feel so passionately about the case.”