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San Diego Man Sues Spain for Return of Art Taken by Nazis

Times Staff Writer

An elderly San Diego man whose family was stripped of their valuable possessions when they fled Nazi Germany in 1939 sued in federal court Tuesday to reclaim a painting by French Impressionist Camille Pissarro that now hangs in a Madrid museum.

Claude Cassirer, 84, a retired portrait photographer, says in his lawsuit that the Spanish government has refused to surrender the masterpiece, worth about $20 million, despite Spain’s signature on international agreements calling for the return of Nazi-looted art.

In Washington, a Spanish Embassy spokeswoman said her government was aware of the lawsuit but had no immediate comment.

The 1897 painting, “Rue St. Honore, Apres-Midi, Effet de Pluie,” was purchased from Pissarro’s dealer in 1900 by Cassirer’s great-grandfather, Julius, a wealthy German-Jewish industrialist.

It hung on a wall in the living room of the family’s Berlin mansion until March 1939, when Cassirer’s grandmother, Lilly, was forced to sell it to a Nazi-appointed art appraiser for the equivalent of $360, according to the lawsuit.

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In exchange, she and her husband were granted visas to leave the country, the lawsuit says. She died in the United States in 1962, naming Cassirer as her sole heir.

After the war, the German government voided the sale and declared Cassirer’s grandmother the rightful owner. But the whereabouts of the painting remained a mystery.

In 2000, Cassirer learned that the painting was on display at the world-renowned Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.

According to the lawsuit, the Spanish government put up $327 million in 1993 to enable a nonprofit foundation to acquire the Pissarro along with scores of other art treasures from a trust founded by German Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the biggest private collectors in the world.

Spain then gave the foundation use of a government-owned palace in Madrid to house and display the collection.

Although the Spanish government has yet to respond to Cassirer’s lawsuit, it is expected to argue that it has no control over the painting. That is a key issue because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year in favor of Maria Altmann, 89, of Los Angeles, who is trying to recover six paintings seized by the Nazis from her family in Austria.

The federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 generally bars lawsuits against foreign governments in U.S. courts. But in a 6-3 decision, the high court said Altmann was entitled to pursue her case in Los Angeles federal court because of an “expropriation exception.”

Cassirer’s lawsuit cites the Altmann decision as a reason for bringing his action in a U.S. court. To succeed, however, he must show that the Madrid museum is an arm of the Spanish government.

In addition to putting up the money to acquire the collection and providing a rent-free home for the museum, the lawsuit says the government appoints two-thirds of the foundation’s board members. Also, the lawsuit asserts, the entire collection would revert to the government if the foundation ceased to exist.

This is the second lawsuit Cassirer has brought over the painting. He also is suing a former New York art dealer, now living in Santa Barbara, who sold the Pissarro to the German baron in 1976. The Superior Court lawsuit contends that the dealer must surrender any profits from the sale, because the painting was stolen.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Cassirer said he was looking forward to regaining possession of the Pissarro.

“The Nazis looted it from my family in 1939. It’s part of my life, part of my heritage,” he said.

Cassirer said he already has a place picked out to display it in his living room.


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