California Legislators Push Bill That Would Ease Process of Recovering Nazi-Looted Art

California legislators have introduced a bill intended to give Holocaust survivors and their heirs a greater chance of recovering artworks stolen, or sold under duress, during periods of political oppression.

Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel (D-Encino), co-chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, who has led the legislative effort, told the Los Angeles Times that it was inspired by a ruling this January that determined that Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum could keep a Camille Pissarro painting taken from its Jewish owner by the Nazi party. 

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“It immediately made sense to me that this was a unique opportunity to correct a historical injustice and make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again,” Gabriel said. “Respectfully, we think that the 9th Circuit got it wrong, and this law is going to make that crystal clear.” He added that the bill has bipartisan support.

The keenly followed case of the Pissarro, titled Rue Saint Honore, apres midi, effet de pluie (Rue Saint Honore, Afternoon, Rain Effect) and depicting a rainy Paris street, has bounced between California courts for nearly two decades, as the heirs of Lilly Cassirer Neubauer have argued for its recovery. 

Cassirer Neubauer was forced by the Nazi party to sell the painting in 1939 for 900 Reichsmarks (roughly $360 today) in exchange for a visa to escape Germany. According to court documents, she never received payment. The painting was acquired in 1993 by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum from the collector Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. Cassirer Neubauer’s heirs allege in the initial complaint filed in 2005 that the museum knew upon acquiring the work that it had been sold under duress. 

The legal saga was initiated by Cassirer Neubauer’s grandson, Claude Cassirer, who in 2001, after learning of its location in the museum, requested its return. With the museum unwilling to part with the painting, he sued. Cassirer, however, died in 2010, leaving the claim to his son David, his daughter Ava’s estate, and the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County.

A 2019 trial decision by US District Judge John F. Walter found that the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection had conducted due diligence in acquiring the painting and had not been aware of any Nazi involvement.

The January 2024 ruling, supported this sentiment. Circuit Judge Carlos Bea stated that Spain’s intent to provide “certainty of title” to its art institutions outweighed California’s interests of discouraging looting and achieving restitution for its residents. Consequently, Bea wrote in the ruling, Spanish law should be applied to the proceedings, as the museum had in good faith displayed the work for eight years before the 2005 complaint was filed.

The Cassirer family is appealing the 9th Circuit ruling, and lauded the proposed bill.

“It’s very important that our laws support and enable Holocaust victims and their heirs to be able to recover this artwork that was stolen so long ago,” David said. “I’m grateful.”

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