Will SCOTUS Uphold Claim of Heirs for Return of Pissarro Painting Stolen by Nazis?Breaking News
tags: Holocaust, Jewish history, Supreme Court, art history, art theft
Twenty-two years ago, photographer Claude Cassirer received a call he never expected. His family’s long-lost Nazi-looted painting by the French-Jewish painter Camille Pissarro had been found. It was hanging in a Spanish museum. The painting, “Rue Saint-Honoré, Apres Midi, Effet de Pluie” depicts the grand avenues of modern Paris glistening during an afternoon rain. It was a prized possession of Claude’s grandmother, Lilly Cassirer.
Claude vividly remembered the painting, under which he would play with his toys as a child. An old family photograph shows the painting in Lilly’s Berlin apartment, prominently displayed in a gilded frame above a lush velvet settee.
Since the painting was discovered at the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid in 2000, the Cassirers have been fighting to regain it. On Jan. 18, the painting will take center stage at the United States Supreme Court. At stake is more than the painting itself, now valued at over $30 million. The court could set new legal precedent as to whether looted art cases involving foreign nations will be determined under state or federal common law, and therefore whether a foreign nation’s laws on property trump both U.S. state laws and international doctrine.
If the Supreme Court concurs with the lower courts, which sided with Spain, it could lead to a chilling effect in looted art cases brought against other countries and embolden current holders of Nazi-plundered art. It is a tipping point for one of the longest-running cases about looted art in United States history.
Art is in the DNA of the Cassirer family. In 1898, within just a few months of the completion of “Rue Saint-Honoré, Apres Midi, Effet de Pluie,” the painting was purchased by Claude’s great-grandfather, Julius Cassirer. He was the patriarch of a family of cultural influencers, who made their fortune in manufacturing building construction materials. The same year, Julius’ son Bruno and nephew Paul would establish an acclaimed art gallery and publishing house that would produce the well-known art journal Kunst und Künstler. Bruno and Paul were also the secretaries of the cutting-edge art collective, The Berlin Secession, which was pushing modernism forward in the country.
It is not surprising that Julius would have snapped up the painting quickly from Pissarro’s Paris dealer, Durand-Ruel. Julius would have likely known that “Rue Saint-Honoré” was unique within Pissarro’s oeuvre, which was dominated by landscapes. When Julius died, his son Friedrich, an opera conductor, inherited the painting. After Friedrich died in 1926, the painting passed to his wife Lilly, Claude’s grandmother.
The Aryanization of German society, by which laws and regulations were placed on Jews by the Nazis starting in 1933, was a practice run for the art plundering operation that took place across the European continent in the 1940s. The forced sales and looting of Jewish property became a weapon of war, used to dispossess Jews first of their livelihood, then of their physical possessions, culminating in their murders in concentration camps.
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