For decades, Beverly Cassirer and her husband chased after the elusive Impressionist painting that had been taken from the family by the Nazis during the dawn of World War II, a maddening hunt that came up empty again and again.
The evocative Parisian street scene by Camille Pissarro had vanished into the mists of the war and then resurfaced decades later in Madrid, hanging for all the world to see in the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, a treasured work by an Impressionist master valued at roughly $30 million.
Cassirer and her husband, Claude, pursued the painting in the courts of Los Angeles, arguing that it had essentially been stolen by the Nazis, who had forced his grandmother to trade it for her own freedom as she tried to flee Germany. The painting ultimately made its way to Spain, when the Madrid museum purchased it and hundreds of other paintings from a Swiss art collector.
When the couple asked, the museum refused to return it and the two turned to the courts for relief.
Neither lived long enough for that day to come.
On Feb. 13, Cassirer died at her home in San Diego at 99, the third family member to die since the international legal fight over the rightful owner of the oil painting began, a court skirmish that has dragged on since 2005. Her husband died in 2010 and a daughter, Ava, in 2018. Her son David now carries on the pursuit of the painting.
“It’s been an odyssey of pain and frustration for the family,” said Sam Dubbin, one of the attorneys working with the family to retrieve the painting.
Beverly Bellin was born Feb. 19, 1920, and raised in Cleveland, where as a young Jewish woman, she felt the stings of the war. She worked as a secretary during the waning days of the Depression, helping support her family so her brothers could go to college. Years later, after her own children were grown, she graduated from John Carroll University in Cleveland.
She and her husband met on a train and both became active in their synagogue in Ohio. In 1980, the two moved to San Diego, where they kept a copy of the lost Pissarro on the living room wall.
The hazy backstory of “Rue Saint-Honore in the Afternoon. Effect of Rain” began in the late 1800s when the artist sold it to Claude’s great-grandfather, who in turn gave it to his daughter, Lilly. For years, it hung in the family’s parlor in Berlin. Claude said he recalled sitting and staring at the painting in wonderment as a child.
But as Adolf Hitler rose to power, the family began to scatter. Claude and his father went to Prague, and then on to Britain. Lilly, though, was halted and forced to hand over the painting in exchange for an exit visa. Her sister stayed behind and eventually was killed in the Theresienstadt death camp.
For years, Lilly searched fruitlessly for the painting, finally giving up hope of ever finding it when the German government paid her $13,000 in reparations, an amount the family came to see as yet another injustice. She died decades before the painting ever resurfaced.
“My grandmother never knew what happened to the painting,” Claude told The Times in 2010, shortly before his death.
On its own web site, the museum fills in some of the blanks, explaining that the painting moved quietly through the art world for years — seized by the Gestapo, sold by a Beverly Hills art gallery to a collector, sold again at a gallery in New York and displayed in Japan, Italy, France and Germany by the Swiss art collector.
The shadowy movements of the painting were not altogether unusual. The Nazis delighted in plundering artwork, and hundreds of thousands of paintings, drawings and other pieces of work disappeared into the netherworld as the war ground on. Stuart E. Eizenstat, a State Department advisor on Holocaust-era issues, told The Times that of the 600,000 paintings thought to have been stolen by the Nazis, roughly 100,000 remain missing.
And at first, Cassirer and her husband believed that was the fate of the Pissarro as well.
Then, a friend spotted it hanging in the Madrid museum.
For years, attorneys for the museum rebuffed every legal advance by the Cassirers, arguing that Spain’s sovereignty gave it immunity from legal proceedings in the U.S. When that argument failed, the museum changed course and argued that the statute of limitations to the family’s right to claim the painting had long ago expired.
While a judge sided with the museum, an appeals court did not and the case was returned to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
Back in court, the couple’s lawyers argued that both the museum and the Swiss art collector overlooked clear and obvious evidence that the painting had probably been plundered, such as the remains of labels and other identification stickers that had peeled away from the back of the painting.
Judge John F. Walter allowed that the Swiss art collector had probably done a poor job researching the history of the painting and that the museum’s efforts to authenticate its origins were far from pristine either. Still, he ruled their actions were not criminal. Further, he said, the museum had possessed the painting for a legally binding period of time and had long displayed it publicly.
David Cassirer said he is left with a nagging sense that nobody has ever fully atoned for the Nazi-era crime.
“This is a painting that was stolen essentially at gunpoint,” he said.
Fifteen years on, the case again is on appeal.