The oil painting by renowned impressionist Camille Pissarro titled “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain” appears innocent enough. The work depicts a boulevard in Paris during a dreamy drizzly afternoon in 1897. But it is what appears behind the canvas that portrays a far darker portrait of human suffering and has set the stage for a titanic legal fight between the Jewish family that originally owned the painting and Spain’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation which acquired the painting decades after it was stolen.
The dispute stems from the descendants of Lilly Cassirer-Neubauer, who was forced to surrender the painting to German officers in 1939 to obtain a visa to flee the country and avoid being sent to an extermination camp. The Cassirer family acquired the original painting in 1898. Several decades after World War II, in 1976, the Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza of Switzerland purchased the work in New York from an American art collector. In 1998, the Baron left his entire collection of art to Spain which created the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation and built the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid to display it.
It was not until 1999 that Lilly’s grandson Claude Cassirer received a call from an acquaintance that the painting was on display at the museum. After the Spanish government refused to return the work, the Cassirer family filed suit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California in 2005 and ultimately withstood Spain’s defenses of sovereign immunity and the statute of limitations.
Last week, after approximately 13 years of litigation, federal judge John F. Walker in downtown Los Angeles presided over a bench trial in which the parties argued whether the Baron and/or Foundation knew, or was willfully blind to the fact that, the painting was stolen.
According to the Cassirers, on the back of the work, a partial sticker from the Cassirer family art gallery is still visible and indicated that the painting had been in Berlin. The family also claims there is evidence that other labels on the back of the painting that the Nazis may have attached had been torn off, and that records from the Baron’s archives indicate he falsified where he purchased the painting.
Conversely, the Foundation contends that, while in hindsight the labels could raise a red flag, the Foundation’s experts conclude there would have been no reason for the Baron or museum officials to be wary of the painting’s past or link it to the Cassirer family. The Foundation also points to the fact that the painting has been on full display at the museum indicating the Foundation believed it had nothing to hide, and that Lilly’s acceptance of a $13,000 restitution award from the German government after the war extinguished any claim she or her heirs may have to the painting.
Though trial has concluded, Walker’s decision is not anticipated until next spring and will likely be appealed regardless of the outcome.