Supreme Court questions fate of art stolen by Nazis

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The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in a long case that would decide the fate of a renowned work of art stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish family fleeing Germany at the start of World War II.

The court is asked to decide the case, which concerns a painting by Camille Pissarro, on extremely technical legal questions concerning the laws to be applied to determine the legitimate owners of the work.

David Boies, attorney for the descendants of the Cassirer family, who bought the painting in 1900, argued Tuesday that the laws of California, where the lawsuit was filed, should apply as opposed to those of Spain, where the table now stands. in a museum.

In 1939, Lilly Cassirer, the heiress of a German Jewish art collector, was forced to sell Pissarro’s work for $360 in order to gain permission to flee Nazi Germany. Today, the painting is estimated at $40 million.

The painting, “Rue Saint-Honoré, Afternoon, Rain Effect”, changed hands several times in the decades following the war, and in 1999 Cassirer’s grandson, Claude Cassirer, discovered that he was in possession of an art museum in Spain.

In 2005 he sued a German art collector who had bought the painting and the public museum in Spain which had borrowed it. The case has gone through several rounds of litigation since.

In 1954, the United States Court of Restitution upheld Lilly Cassirer’s claim that she was the rightful owner and that the painting had been stolen.

But in 2019, a district court judge ruled the defendants irresponsible for failing to investigate whether the painting was stolen by the Nazis. Under Spanish law, however, they could not be held criminally liable and forced to return the artwork.

The Cassirer family argues the case should have been decided under the laws of California, where many of the family members lived for years and where the painting was kept for a period during its long chain of custody. post-war. Under state law, anyone who owns an item that has been proven to be stolen cannot claim to be its rightful owner.

Tuesday’s Supreme Court pleadings featured little discussion of the painting saga. The judges debated how to decide which laws should apply in the dispute and whether the public museum in Spain should be given deference from a private museum.

Thaddeus Stauber, an attorney representing the museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, said Tuesday that such disputes should be decided under a “federal regime designed to ensure fair and consistent treatment regardless of location. in the USA”. states are sued, arguing that the nation’s foreign relations could otherwise be damaged.

But justice Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasSupreme Court debates fate of Nazi-stolen artwork Supreme Court agrees to hear case on suspension of HS coach for on-field prayers The Supreme Court, Vaccination and Government by Fox News MORE asked whether this would give foreign states the ability to escape legal liability despite federal law requiring them to be treated the same as foreign individuals.

“I don’t quite understand how the sovereign can be treated the same as an individual if you apply different choice of law rules,” Thomas said.

Justice Stephane BreyerStephen BreyerSupreme Court debates fate of Nazi-stolen artwork The Supreme Court, vaccination and government by Fox News On the Money – SCOTUS invalidates Biden rules vax-or-test MORE also expressed skepticism about the feasibility of Stauber’s argument.

“How do we do that? It seems a little complicated, from your perspective. At least the opposite perspective is simple,” Breyer told the lawyer.

A decision is expected at the end of June. It’s unclear how the court might decide the complex case, and judges posed tough questions to both sides on Tuesday, indicating uncertainty about how to decide the complex legal issues.

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