The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid

Court rules museum legally owns Nazi-looted artwork

Eleanor Mills, 08.05.2019
Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum can keep work despite violating Washington Principles
Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum has been ruled by a US judge as the legal owner of a painting that the Nazis took from a Jewish woman in 1939.

The painting, Rue Saint-Honore, Après-Midi, Effet de Pluie, 1897, by Camille Pissarro, belonged to the Cassirer family until they were forced to sell it to an art dealer and member of the Nazi party to buy their freedom and avoid being sent to a death camp.

The work passed through a series of hands and was bought by Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza from a gallery in New York in 1976. His collection was subsequently acquired by the Spanish state in 1993 as part of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

Lilly Cassirer Neubauer was compensated for the loss by the German federal government in 1958, for a sum of 120,000 deutschmarks.

PISSARRO_Rue Saint-Honoré por la tarde_712 (1976.74)_p_web
The Cassirer family made their first claim for the Pissarro painting in 2002, starting a lawsuit in 2005. This decision, 14 years later, finds that the work belongs to the museum on the basis that, according to Spanish law, if a collector or museum does not know that an artwork was looted when they acquire it they are legally entitled to keep it.

The judge, however, said that when Thyssen-Bornemisza bought the painting in 1976 he should have been aware of the "sufficient circumstances or red flags" that signalled it had been looted, such as missing and damaged provenance labels.

The judge criticised Spain for not keeping to the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, an agreement made in 1998 among 44 nations to return Nazi-looted art to the descendants of the people they were taken from – to which Spain is a signatory.

In his written decision, the judge said that despite being legally entitled to keep the artwork, Spain's insistence on keeping the painting was "inconsistent" with that agreement.

Evelio Acevedo, the managing director of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, said: “We are extremely happy that once again the court has ruled in favour of the Fundación and its lawyers regarding the historical research into the entire process of the painting’s acquisition by Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza and subsequently by the Spanish state.

“The judge has borne all this in mind, as well as the fact that the Cassirer family was already compensated by the German government in 1958.”

The judge’s decision leaves open the possibility of an appeal from the Cassirer family.

Pictured: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid; Rue Saint-Honore, Après-Midi, Effet de Pluie, 1897, by Camille Pissarro