Looted art, Art theft Restitution claim Cassirer vs. Spain (Thyssen-Bornemisza) dismissed

Published on 6 July 2012 at 09:33

The U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on 24 May 2012 dismissed the restitution claim of a painting by Camille Pissarro, "Rue St-Honore, Apres-Midi, Effet de Pluie" on 24 May 2012.


The painting was claimed by the heirs of Mrs. Lilly Cassirer Neubauer. Mrs. Cassirer, of Jewish descent, was forced to relinquish the painting in 1939 in order to escape from Germany. In 2000, claimants had discovered that the painting was located at the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. The museum has acquired the painting in 1993 from the Thyssen family.


The Spanish museum refused to hand-over the painting. The heirs, who reside in California, subsequently initiated a replevin action in 2005 against the Spanish museum before the California Court. In an earlier phase of the proceedings, the Court had determined that it had proper jurisdiction to deal with the case against a Spanish museum over a painting that was located in Spain, given that in some circumstances matters against foreign sovereigns (the museum is state- owned) can be brought into U.S. Courts.


On the merits, however, claimants lost the case. They initiated their claim after the end of the general statutory term for filing suit in California, i.e. 3 years after the claim arose. Assuming that that the three-year term started after the heirs had discovered the painting's whereabouts, this meant that claimants should have filed suit by no later than 2003. The heirs understandably filed suit later, given that that California law at that time gave owners and heirs to artworks looted by the Nazis extra time — until the end of 2010 — to sue for their return. This rule in 2009 was struck down as unconstitutional. The Court at that time held that California officials overstepped their authority when they passed the state's Holocaust art-restitution law, because they intruded on what is strictly a Federal government prerogative to shape policies on war and foreign affairs.


The Californian legislature after 2009 again passed legislation that extended the term to file suit against museums from 3 to 6 years. In the Cassirer-case, the court held that the newly extended term could not uphold the Cassirer claim, given that the new legislation had the very same objective as the legislation that was struck down earlier.


As a result, the Court held that the claim was inadmissible for procedural reasons. It follows from the Court's findings that legislation dealing specifically with restitution must be enacted by Federal legislation.


It is doubtful whether the Federal legislature will be willing to do so. The post-WWII foreign policy of the United States is such that it has restituted artworks to nations, not individuals. As a result, the United States government will likely not be too keen on passing legislation to allow for new restitution claims in the U.S. With respect to wartime claims on items whose whereabouts have recently been discovered, or are yet to be discovered, claimants are best advised to ensure that they file suit in a timely fashion to avoid being time-barred.


Link to the judgment


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