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The plundered 'pissarro' of the Thyssen: a masterpiece that symbolizes the violent 20th century

2022-05-15T03:49:55.953Z

The ruling of the US Supreme Court in favor of the Cassirer family reopens one of the most notorious and longest stolen art claim cases in history, which is nearing its end without a clear outcome



The plundered 'pissarro' of the Thyssen, in the living room of Lilly Cassirer's house in Berlin in the thirties, in a photo from the family archive.

On December 15, 1897, Camille Pissarro wrote a letter to her son Lucien in which she announced that she had rented a room at the Grand Hôtel du Louvre, from which she could work: “I love the opportunity to paint those streets of Paris that we usually consider ugly, and that instead are so silvery, luminous and full of life.

They are full modernity!”.

The dean of the Impressionists was 67 years old and had a disease in the tear duct of his left eye that had withdrawn him from the fields, where for decades he gave a new dimension to outdoor painting.

Sheltered from the dust and the wind, he dedicated himself to looking out the window, and finished 15 views of a city that was abuzz in those days because of the

Dreyfus case

and the

I accuse

by Émile Zola, who uncovered the anti-Semitism of the Third Republic.

His gallery owner, Paul Durand-Ruel, sold one of the most beautiful in 1900, entitled

Rue Saint-Honoré in the afternoon.

Rain Effect,

to the Cassirers, a Jewish family of businessmen and art lovers.

125 years after its creation, that painting is at the center of an international dispute that has lasted more than two decades.

More information

The US Supreme Court rules in favor of the heirs of the Thyssen 'pissarro' looted by the Nazis

The only living descendant of its first owners is David Cassirer, a 67-year-old retired musician living in San Diego.

According to him in a long telephone conversation with EL PAÍS, he is determined to "carry to the end" the fight "begun almost 23 years ago" by his father, Claude Cassirer.

He wants the Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation to take down the work from room 31 of its museum in Madrid, where it is currently on display, and return to the family a piece that the Nazis looted in 1939 from his great-grandmother, Lilly Cassirer.

After two sentences against two Californian courts (one in Los Angeles, in 2018, and the appeal of the Ninth Circuit), the case reached the Supreme Court of the United States in January, which last month ruled for the first time in favor of the family.

The sentence, which seeks more than anything to unify procedural criteria, did not rule on the fate of the painting.

But she was categorical in her decision to return the ball to the court of appeal, considering that the judge was wrong to apply the conflict rule, which is the one that decides which law prevails, whether the Spanish or the Californian, in a dispute like this in which there are two in contention, because the plaintiff is an American and the defendant, a foreign State.

Two visitors contemplate the painting 'Rue Saint-Honoré in the afternoon.

Effect of rain', in the Thyssen, last April.

LOUIS SEVILLANO

If the federal conflict rule is applied, as it was applied, the Spanish law prevails, which says that the

pissarro

is fine where it is.

What will happen now that the state has to apply?

Like almost everything in this story, it depends on who you ask.

For the Cassirers' lawyers, the "logical" answer is that California's substantive law will apply, which states that a person who receives stolen personal property, as is the case, cannot consolidate his property title for a long time. .

The Thysssen lawyers trust "99%" that the substance of the matter will continue to be decided by Spanish law, according to which, and by virtue of the right of usucapion, public possession of the painting for six years is sufficient to consider the museum as its rightful owner.

(12 passed, since the foundation opened its doors until the moment in which the Cassirers denounced the events in Los Angeles in 2005).

David Cassirer, last January in Washington, before the Supreme Court, which studied the case of his family's 'pissarro', currently owned by Thyssen. Susan Walsh (AP)

Attorney Taddheus J. Stauber, of the Nixon Peabody firm, who has represented the foundation ever since, recalled this week that trial judge John Walter already did the exercise in 2018 of imagining what would happen if he applied the state conflict rule and obtained the same result that led him to agree with the Thyssen.

“There is little or no relationship between California and the painting in question.

It was purchased with Spanish public funds, and has been in Europe for decades, ever since the Baron bought it in 1976. Its only connection to California is that the plaintiffs [David Cassirer's parents, both of whom have since died] moved to San Diego when they they retired.

We have no doubts that Spanish law will prevail, ”says Stauber.

For Bernardo Cremades, whose family office joined in 2017 as

amicus curiae

to provide support to the Cassirers on behalf of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain and the Jewish Community of Madrid, this argument is weak, because that examination was made in a “very superficial way”.

“It was in passing, and without going into the matter.

Anticipating what a judge is going to decide seems like pure speculation to me”, explains Cremades.

“I am surprised that Spain continues to rely on technicalities to fail to comply, unlike other countries, with international commitments regarding the return of art looted by the Nazis;

I am referring to the Washington Principles and the Terezin Declaration,” he adds.

Judge Walter also referred in his sentence to both treaties signed by Spain ―in 1998 (with José María Aznar in the Government) and in 2009 (with José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero)―.

The ruling ended with this paragraph: “The museum's refusal to return the painting is incompatible [with those agreements].

However, the court has no alternative but to apply Spanish law and cannot force the Kingdom of Spain or the museum to comply with their moral commitments”.

David Cassirer celebrates the latest news from Washington as a great victory.

"We thought we could win, but I never dreamed of getting a unanimous ruling," he said of a resolution he put together among the nine Supreme Court justices most bitter in decades.

“He is very encouraging, and he sends a message to Spain and to the world's museums: it is not right to profit from the Holocaust.

This painting was taken from its victims by the Nazis: Spain should return it instead of continuing this costly litigation.”

And on that, they all agree.

According to data provided by Thyssen, Spain has paid 2,735,845 euros in lawyers' fees in California plus 310,947 euros in other expenses.

Cassirer says that he has spent "between 10 and 20 million" on his crusade, which makes him think that the figures made public by the opposing party are "lies."

If he recovers the work, he will have no choice but to sell it because he, he says, could not "afford to have it."

“I have thought about doing it on the condition that it be publicly exposed.”

The three law firms that have worked on his case, led by one of the most famous lawyers in the United States, David Boies, whose clients include Al Gore, Harvey Weinstein or, recently, the victim of Jeffrey Epstein who reached an agreement with the Prince Andrés, they have entrusted their compensation to obtain a victory.

Regardless of the outcome of one of the most notorious art claims in history, its passage through the high court has served to put the focus back on the adventures of a canvas and a family that are very similar to those of the Jews in the violent twentieth century.

In order to reconstruct both, it has been necessary to resort to judicial documents and archives in Washington, as well as a dozen conversations, in many cases presented as confrontations, with Cassirer, representatives of the Thyssen Foundation, lawyers from both parties, experts on Pissarro and specialists in restitution of stolen art.

Lilly Cassirer, with her grandson Claude in an image from the 1920s in Germany.

The painting came to the family through the famous gallery that two Cassirers, Bruno, who was also the great German publisher of the Impressionists, and his cousin, Paul, had at number 35 Viktoriastrasse in Berlin.

They belonged to one of the most famous Jewish lineages in Europe, with such prominent members as the philosopher Ernst Cassirer or Fritz Cassirer, conductor.

In 1924 he inherited the

pissarro

from Julius, his father.

When Fritz died two years later, he left it to his widow, Lilly.

They only had one daughter, Eva, who died young, during the pandemic a century ago, a few months after giving birth to her only descendant, Claude.

Died in 2010, it was he who sued the Thyssen Foundation.

Lilly remarried at age 63 to a famous doctor named Otto Neubauer who, after the Nazis came to power in 1933, was purged from his posts in Munich for his Jewish roots.

They were married in 1939. That same year, fearing, as she later recalled, that they might be "arrested by the Gestapo, for no apparent reason, and deported to Dachau," they left Germany for Oxford, whose university hired Neubauer to continue his cancer research.

Shortly before leaving, a dealer sent by the Third Reich went to his house to check what cultural goods they intended to take out of the country.

He paid them 900 marks for the

pissarro

, an "outrageous" price, according to an allied document at the end of the war.

He didn't care: Lilly didn't get even that in return, they put the money into an account that was already blocked.

The guy later exchanged the oil painting by Pissaro, who, as a Jewish painter, had little outlet in Germany at the time – whose authorities had also declared war on the avant-garde – for three pieces by 19th-century German artists.

They were owned by another Jew, Julius Sulzbacher, who unsuccessfully tried to take the Impressionist view with him on his flight to Brazil.

Requisitioned by the Gestapo, it was sold in 1941 at an auction in Dusseldorf to a certain Ari Walter Kampf.

The work was awarded again two years later.

Then an unidentified buyer took it in Berlin for 95,000 marks.

And there his trace was lost for a decade, until in 1951 he appeared in Los Angeles.

Lilly Cassirer never knew any of that;

she believed that the canvas had been lost or destroyed in World War II.

The woman died in 1962 in Cleveland (Ohio), where she moved after her second widowhood to live with the family of her grandson, the photographer Claude Cassirer.

Four years earlier, and after a decade of litigation against various gangs, Lilly had received compensation from the Federal Republic of Germany of 120,000 marks, of which he had to pay 14,000 to the heiress of the next owner, the guy who tried to take it to Brazil .

The agreement also established that she did not lose the right to request the restitution or return of the painting, if necessary.

Both sides more or less agree that the price, set by Pissarro's market value at the time, was fair, though they differ on how to interpret the consequences of that arrangement.

For the plaintiff, the museum clings to the fact that they have already compensated her great-grandmother to "clean her conscience."

“They want to make us look greedy, and make it look like we want to charge twice.

It's a classic: shaking up the stereotypes around Jews.

But there is a big difference between repair and restitution, and besides, the money they gave us would have to be reimbursed to the Germans if they return the work to us”, he assures.

Evelio Acevedo, managing director of Thyssen, explains: “Many times it is forgotten that they were compensated, and when it is mentioned, it is done giving the impression that the amount they received was small, when it is not true.

pissarro

”.

David Cassirer provides a photo of what the disputed oil painting looked like in Lilly's elegant apartment in Berlin in the 1930s to make it clear that they do not want “another

pissarro

”, but the one that was in their family for 40 years.

“I still have many of the objects in that picture, including the beautiful hand-carved spiral cabinet and lamp, or the beautiful Ernst Barlach porcelain of a peasant girl.”

When the parents moved to San Diego to be close to their two children (David had a sister, Ava, who died in 2018), David, who developed his professional career as an arranger for the Los Angeles recording industry, commissioned a copy of the stripped canvas to place in the living room of the new house.

Before retiring in sunny California, the parents had spent a lifetime in Cleveland.

Claude arrived in that Midwestern city “without a penny” in 1941. War caught him in occupied France, and he was able to flee to Morocco, where he nearly died of dysentery in a refugee camp.

A Jewish association directed him to Cleveland, which had a notable Jewish community.

There he became a "very popular photographer, with important clients," according to his son.

When they announced an upcoming trip to Europe, "he always showed them a photo of the

pissarro

, to see if they could find him."

The eureka came in December 1999, when, according to the plaintiff's account, a friend sent them an image of the painting taken from a catalog of the Baron Thyssen's collection in Lugano (Switzerland).

"Overcome the surprise and disgust, my father decided that he would not stop until Lilly's painting stopped honoring the legacy of a family of steel entrepreneurs who supported Hitler in his early days."

David Cassirer refers to Fritz Thyssen, who helped raise the Führer, but ended up persecuted by the Third Reich.

“Without him, that monstrous being would not have been more than a mediocre painter.

Wouldn't this be a better world?” he wonders.

It took the Cassirers a few months to find out where the oil painting was at that time, which was already property of the Spanish State and hung in the Villahermosa palace in Madrid.

To achieve this, they enlisted the help of collector Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Council.

After requesting its return without success, they denounced the foundation in Los Angeles in 2005, encouraged by the success that the lawyer Randol Schoenberg (grandson of the Viennese composer) had had in the Supreme Court of the United States.

The high court recognized her right to litigate in California what is surely the most famous case of restitution of art looted by the Nazis: Maria Altmann's claim to the Austrian State for five Klimt paintings taken from her family.

They ended up getting them back at the end of a film process;

so movie,

The Lady in Gold

and starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.

(The most famous painting in the lot later, when sold to Lauder in 2006, broke the record for the most expensive in history to date, and is on display at New York's Neue Galerie.)

'Portrait of Adèle Bloch-Bauer', painting by Gustave Klimt, returned by the Austrian Government to Maria Altmann in 2006.

After finding the

pissarro

, the Cassirers began to fill in the gaps in their story.

This is how they knew that, since Lilly had lost track of her and until the baron bought it in 1976 for $300,000, she had been around a few times.

He arrived in Los Angeles in 1951 at the hands of a German dealer named Frank Perls who was Jewish ("ironically," says David Cassirer, who defines him as a "super thief").

Perls had worked during the war as an interpreter for the US Army.

He sold it to a prominent art lover in the city named Sidney Brody, who returned it a few months later (according to the plaintiff, when he realized, after studying it, that it was a looted piece).

The following year, the same gallery owner placed it with the heir to a department store fortune (another Jew), who owned it for more than 20 years in Saint Louis.

Cassirer describes all these transactions as conspiracies carried out in secret, "on the black market of art plundered by a bunch of rogues."

Stauber, the foundation's lawyer, considers that the reputation of these dealers "is beyond doubt" and recalls that none of them appears in "none of the lists of art dealers who collaborated with the Nazis published at the end of the war" .

“I find it appalling that you would lightly launch these accusations against members, precisely, of your community,” he adds.

The plaintiff also considers decisive the fact that the painting retains part of a label from the gallery of his ancestors Bruno and Paul Cassirer.

He has known this since they sent an expert to Madrid, took down the painting and removed the frame (for Acevedo, manager of the Thyssen, gestures like that speak "of the transparency" with which the museum has "acted at all times").

The fragments “Berlin”, “Victo” from Victoriastrasse, the street, and “Kunst und Verla”, by Kunst und Verlagsanstalt (publisher and art gallery) have survived from the stamp.

Cassirer believes that "someone ripped out Bruno's and Paul's names at some point."

That "Hahn knew perfectly well what that label meant, and an art lover like the baron, too."

And that if they didn't want to see it, it was because of "an interested blindness."

"It's also outrageous," he continues,

“That the Spanish specialists affirm that they did not realize what they had before their eyes when they bought the painting as part of the lot”.

“It was one of the best known galleries in Europe!” he exclaims.

The Cassirer gallery in Berlin around 1900.ullstein bild Dtl.

(Ullsteinbild via Getty Images)

The foundation's lawyer explains that they do not know if the label was intact when the baron bought the piece, or what state it was in when it came into the hands of the Spanish State.

“But it doesn't matter, because a seal of this type only indicates that the painting passed through that gallery, nothing more.

It does not prove in any way that it was owned by Lilly Cassirer, and Judge Walter made it that clear in his sentence.

Interestingly, this topic of etiquette has only entered the conversation in recent years, as their arguments have run out.

When they change their lawyer, the story changes”.

In the first instance ruling it was also established as proven that Thyssen bought the

pissarro

"in good faith", although the historian Miguel Martorell, author of

El expolio nazi

(Galaxia Gutenberg, 2021), advises taking that with caution.

“Bad faith is very difficult to prove in usucapión, it is not the kind of intention that you leave in writing.

What seems clear to me is that the baron did not do enough to check the provenance of the painting," adds Martorell, who laments the museum's "loss of perspective": "Sometimes it seems that they forget, in the midst of so much legalism, the story behind it, which is that of some victims of the Holocaust seeking reparation for a terrible damage”.

Lawyer Stauber recalls that in the seventies the

pissarro

it did not appear on any list of stolen art, because the family had not registered it, and that the awareness of the subject was not the one that prevailed in the nineties.

Evelio Acevedo, manager of the museum, clarifies, for his part, that the Washington Principles on stolen art "do not establish an obligation in all cases to return the pieces that were looted."

“They try to defend the rights of all participants in an operation.

Whoever buys in good faith, as he undoubtedly did from the foundation, also has rights, rights that are protected by these principles.

Those who were affected by the looting have already been duly compensated, with which the spirit of those principles has already materialized in this case.”

Stauber adds that this multilateral agreement, in the drafting of which he, he advises, he participated when he was a young lawyer,

"It is also designed to encourage respect for the laws of other countries."

“We cannot impose the US order on the whole world.

Imagine a Spanish court accepting a claim against, say, the Smithsonian.

It is unthinkable,” he opines.

Another matter in which the versions between the parties differ is in what the baron did with the painting before selling it to Spain.

The plaintiff has it clear: everything possible to keep it hidden.

To prove it, he shares a photo published in 1988 by

Architectural Digest

showing the

pissarro

hung in an intimate room in Villa Favorita, Heinrich Thyssen's mansion in Lugano.

Interestingly, that same image proves the opposite for the other party.

"If I was looking for that, how was I going to let one of the world's leading home decor magazines put out something I didn't want anyone to see?" Stauber wonders.

By then, the aristocrat was already married (since 1985) to Carmen Cervera.

(The baroness did not respond to this newspaper's request for an interview to discuss this issue).

The foundation also commissioned a report from historian Laurie Stein, an expert on looted art.

In it, she states that between 1979 and her final move to Madrid, she participated in major exhibitions in nine countries, from New Zealand to Germany.

Cassirer says that "all of that is false."

“They have used archive photos to pretend that this painting was in London or Tokyo.

They have not been able to present anything, not an image, not a newspaper article.

How can it be that the passage of one of the most famous paintings by one of the most famous impressionists in the world did not leave a trace in those capitals?

To this accusation, Stauber responds by recalling that the baron's collection "was one of the most famous in the world", and that when it was put up for sale, "it was courted by the Getty Foundation, Los Angeles, by the United Kingdom and by Germany ”.

"The decision to end up in Madrid was world-wide news, impossible to keep secret," he adds.

One of the reasons why the collector decided on Spain was that the State undertook to guarantee the integrity of the set, a commitment sealed by law.

To the question of whether this regulation would have to be changed if a California court finally decided to return the

pissarro

, Acevedo replied that "that scenario is not even on the table, because there is no reason to think that the current sentence will change."

Cassirer, again, doesn't agree with that either.

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Source: elparis

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