Suit Highlights Failures on Art Restitution

By Nathaniel Popper

Published May 13, 2005, issue of May 13, 2005.
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As part of a renewed push to reclaim art seized by the Nazis, an elderly Holocaust survivor has filed suit against the Spanish government to regain a Camille Pissarro painting taken from his grandmother.

Claude Cassirer, 84, filed suit Tuesday in a Los Angeles court, demanding the return of the painting — “Rue Saint-Honoré, après-midi, effet de pluie” — which is displayed in Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Art experts said that Cassirer has unusually compelling evidence that the painting rightfully belongs to him, but Cassirer has been rebuffed by the Spaniards for five years.

“It’s part of my life,” Cassirer told the Forward. “It’s part of everything we had in Germany before Hitler.”

The case comes amid a flurry of activity in the art restitution field. In the last few months, after letting the issue fall by the wayside for most of the last three years, the three primary international institutions dealing with Holocaust-era restitution have begun consulting in an effort to revamp international efforts on artwork seized by the Nazis. In January a project was launched to document national laws governing restitution.

Despite this recent activity, the Cassirer case underscores the lack of progress in Holocaust-era art restitution since the issue first gained attention in the late 1990s, several restitution experts said.

Many countries — including Spain — signed agreements in the late 1990s stating the importance of returning artwork stolen during the Nazi era, but the follow-through on those principles has been less than complete.

“There has been no effort to hold countries accountable,” said Stuart Eizenstat, who was President Clinton’s special representative on Holocaust-era issues. “The momentum we generated has been lost.”

In 1998, Eizenstat was present when 44 countries came to a conference in Washington and signed on to a set of principles that enjoined them to help find and return paintings.

The agreement urged countries to settle the claims of Holocaust survivors out of court. It stated: “If the pre-War owners of art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis… can be identified, steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution.”

Experts like Eizenstat say that in the first few years after the Washington conference, worldwide activity on art restitution was intense. Several organizations were founded to help survivors find lost art — including the Commission for Art Recovery, which was formed by the World Jewish Congress and cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder. However, in the last three years these organizations have been largely moribund, with Web sites trimmed back to a bare skeleton.

Governments have also dropped their early commitment to the issue. Many European countries still have laws that effectively bar the return of cultural objects from public collections. The American government, which led the way during the 1990s, did not implement many of the recommendations that came out of a 2001 report written by the Presidential Commission for Holocaust Assets in the United States. The State Department has actually filed briefs against survivors who sought to obtain art from foreign countries through lawsuits.

“There’s an avoidance of the obligation to right these injustices, and we’re very aware that time is running out,” said Anne Webber, executive director of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, the only international organization that has consistently worked full time on the issue of art restitution.

Lacking diplomatic alternatives, many Holocaust survivors have turned to the courts. In June 2004, a decision in a California case — brought by 88-year old Maria Altmann — opened the way for American citizens claiming Nazi-looted art to sue foreign governments in American courts. Cassirer is using that precedent in his own case, which was filed in the same court as Altmann’s.

Such lawsuits are still treading untested legal territory: No plaintiff has won back a painting from a foreign country in an American court.

In addition to the legal intricacies, there are moral dilemmas in the fight to reclaim art. When it came to recovering Jewish money from Swiss banks, most of the banks had held the Jewish property since World War II. But in the case of most paintings, the current owners purchased the objects more recently and rarely knew they were buying looted goods.

“It’s a Solomonic situation,” said Randol Schoenberg, Altmann’s lawyer. “You have one piece of property and two innocent parties. You have a situation where the law has to pick which one gets it.”

Art institutions in America have not given up. The American Association of Museums established the Nazi Era Internet Portal in 2003, and today 120 member museums display information they have on the provenance of artworks, allowing survivors to search for information more easily (similar efforts have faltered in European countries). Art auction houses have also become serious about tracking the history of paintings: Last fall, Christie’s hired away the top restitution expert from New York’s Holocaust Claims Processing Office, the main governmental body in America dealing with art claims.

On an international level, though, no one is coordinating such efforts. To help change this, Eizenstat has recently been in discussion with Weber and with officials from the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

Officials at all these organizations say that the Cassirer case symbolizes the need for new activity.

The Cassirer family purchased the painting from Pissaro in 1898. It was handed down to Claude Cassirer’s grandmother, Lilly, who raised Claude after his own mother’s death.

In 1939, when Lilly applied for a visa to leave Nazi Germany, she was given one on the condition that she relinquish the Pissaro painting. Lilly searched for the painting after the war, but it was only in 2000 that Claude found the work in the Spanish foundation, which had acquired it from a Swiss baron in 1993.

Much of the legal case revolves around whether the Spanish government owns the foundation’s paintings. The Thyssen-Bornemisza foundation is technically an independent body, but the government gave the foundation $327 million to buy the baron’s collection. In addition the foundation’s board is comprised primarily of members of the Spanish government.

Jewish organizations have helped set up meetings between the government and the Cassirers, and in 2001 the Commission for Art Recovery helped Cassirer present a petition to the government, but it was denied.

Repeated efforts to reach the Spanish ministry for cultural affairs were unsuccessful.

Many experts question whether the lawsuit alone will be enough to recover the painting. Even if the Cassirers win the case, there appears to be no international law that would compel the Spanish government to return the work. But the case is already attracting attention — and ramping the pressure on the Spanish government. Cassirer said that if he has any success in his lawsuit, he plans to set up a foundation to help others seeking lost art.

“People are at a loss about how to pursue this,” Cassirer said. “We’re just the people to turn around and help others.”

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