The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Thursday to hear a case involving a La Mesa, California, family's 20-year effort to reclaim a French Impressionist painting looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust and now hanging in a Spanish museum.
Camille Pissarro's 1897 work, "Rue Saint-Honoré, Afternoon Effect," is worth by some estimates more than $30 million.
In granting a petition filed by the Cassirer family, the court said it will resolve a jurisdictional issue that has divided lower appellate panels: Does federal or state law apply in suits filed against foreign entities?
Claude Cassirer, a retired portrait photographer, filed suit in 2005 after learning that the Pissarro was on display in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid almost 75 years after it was taken in a forced sale from his grandmother, Lilly Neubauer.
A Jew living in Berlin as the Holocaust unfolded, Neubauer accepted $360 for the painting in 1939 to secure safe passage to England. Hers was among an estimated 600,000 artworks looted as Hitler's Army rampaged across Europe.
After the war, she attempted to get the painting back but was told it could not be located and may have been destroyed in an Allied bombing.
During almost a decade of proceedings, the U.S. Court of Restitution Appeals confirmed Neubauer as the rightful owner. She accepted the equivalent of about $13,000 to settle her claim against the German government without waiving rights to the painting if it was ever found.
Neubauer died in 1962. By then the painting had been auctioned by the Gestapo, sold to a collector in California for $14,850, and then sold again to a collector in St. Louis for $16,500.
In 1976, it was purchased for $275,000 at a gallery in New York by a Swiss art collector named Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the son of a steel magnate. He hung it in the master bedroom suite of his villa in Lugano, Switzerland.
His private collection of 775 paintings — works by Rubens, Dali, El Greco, Picasso, Gauguin and others — was purchased by Spain in 1993 for $338 million and put on display in the Thyssen-Bornemisza, a national museum that is housed in a restored palace.
Although the whereabouts of the Pissarro weren't a secret in the art world, Cassirer didn't know where it was — or even that it still existed — until a friend saw a photo of it in a catalog of the baron's collection.
In 2001, Cassirer asked for the painting back. When the museum refused, he filed suit four years later under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which governs litigation against other countries.
Cassirer died in 2010. His son, David, and daughter, Ava, took over as plaintiffs. She died in 2018.
In court proceedings over the years, the family has argued that the museum should have known (or done more to learn) about the painting's dark provenance. Under California law — which disallows title to stolen goods — the Pissarro should be returned, according to the family's legal filings.
The museum has argued that the painting was obtained in good faith and that it had no actual knowledge of the looting. It believes federal law applies, which means ownership is governed by Spanish regulations. Under those regulations, the museum says, it gained adverse possession by publicly displaying the Pissarro for eight years before Cassirer filed his claim.
In 2019, a U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles sided with the museum, although he also chided it for failing its "moral commitments" to honor international agreements calling for the return of looted artwork.
A year later, the Ninth Circuit Court rejected an appeal by the family. The court said federal law applies to suits filed under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
That put it at odds with four other circuits, which have held that state law applies, and set up the question that the U.S. Supreme Court decided Thursday to resolve.