“In 1939 Germany, as part of the ‘Aryanization’ of the property of German Jews, Lilly Neubauer was forced to ‘sell’ a painting by Camille Pissaro, a French Impressionist, to Jackob Scheidwimmer, a Berlin art dealer.”
That, my friends, is the opening paragraph of this Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ Opinion.
The federal Court of Appeals used quotation marks around “sell” because Lilly Neubauer was forced to sell the Pissaro painting for $360 in Reichsmarks so she would be allowed to leave Germany.
Our case is not unlike the movie “Woman in Gold” staring Helen Mirren, about Jewish heirs to artwork looted by Nazis, trying to recover the art from a famous museum. In fact, Pissaro’s “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain” has been on display in Madrid since 1993. It is magnificent.
After World War II, the Allies established a process for restoring property to the victims of Nazi looting. Military Law No. 59 authorized victims to seek restitution of looted property. Lilly Neubauer filed a timely claim and the United States Court of Restitution Appeals confirmed her as the owner.
Believing that the painting was lost or destroyed during the war, she converted her claim to be against the new German Federal Republic and actually reached a settlement in 1958 where the German government paid Neubauer 120,000 Deutschmarks for the painting. That settlement was later found not to disqualify her ancestors from making a claim for return of the painting.
RUE SAINT-HONORÉ’S POST-WAR HISTORY
After the Nazi’s confiscated “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain,” it was originally sold at a Nazi government auction in Dusseldorf, then in 1943 it was sold at auction in Berlin, then sold again in 1952, finally in 1976 the artwork was purchased by the Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza.
The Spanish government purchased Pissaro’s “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain” from the Baron in 1993, where it has been on display.
“DISCOVERY” OF PISSARO’S ARTWORK
In 2001, Claude Cassirers, a photographer and heir to Lilly Neubauer, learned that the painting was in a museum in Madrid. Cassirers timely filed a lawsuit in Spain seeking return of his family’s Pissaro. That petition was denied, and in 2005 Cassirers filed a lawsuit in federal court in Northern California.
LAWSUIT STILL GOING
The procedural history of Pissaro’s lawsuit is less interesting than what you just read, or so it seems to me, but this case has been bouncing around the courts for a long time – for well over ten years.
The federal Court of Appeals noted that the Nazis apparently looted many Pissaro paintings and when the Baron purchased the painting, there was scant evidence of its history.
The Court of Appeals overturned the trial court ruling which had favored the museum, writing “there is a genuine dispute of material fact whether [the Museum] knew the painting had been stolen when the Museum acquired it from the Baron.” Knowledge is one of the key issues in these cases.
Therefore the heirs’ case may go to trial, before which it will likely settle as most of these stolen artwork cases do.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.portersimon.com.
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