California Legislators Push Law to Help Heirs Recover Looted Art

LOS ANGELES — California state legislators proposed a new bill last week that aims to help Holocaust victims and their heirs in recovering art stolen by Nazis, as well as others who have lost artwork due to political persecution or acts of genocide. Assembly Bill (AB) 2867, introduced on Thursday, March 28, would ensure that California law, and not foreign law, is applied in cases involving looted property.

“The purpose of the bill is to ensure an outcome based on morality and justice, and not legal technicalities,” Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, who represents the San Fernando Valley and is the bill’s lead sponsor, told the Los Angeles Times.

Christopher A. Marinello, CEO and founder of the private organization Art Recovery International, opined that it is “unconscionable and pathetic that this legislation is even necessary.”

“Eighty years after the end of WWII, we still have museums, dealers, and collectors around the world hiding behind their country’s laws which are designed to protect the art trade over the rights of Holocaust victims and their families,” Marinello told Hyperallergic.

Gabriel was motivated to introduce the bill earlier this year, after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena ruled in favor of Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in a dispute over a painting by Camille Pissarro that was looted from a Jewish family during World War II. Pissarro’s “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon. Effect of Rain” (1897) was owned by Lilly Cassirer, a Jewish-German woman, until she was forced to trade the painting to the Nazis in exchange for her freedom in 1939.

After the war, it illegally entered the United States, and was sold by a New York Gallery in 1976 to Swiss art collector Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza, who built his fortune as heir to a steel empire that “helped finance Adolf Hitler’s rise to power,” per the Los Angeles Times. Thyssen-Bornemisza sold his collection of more than 775 paintings to Spain for $340 million in 1993.

Cassirer’s family believed the painting to be lost until her grandson Claude Cassirer, a Southern California resident, found that it was at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum around 2000. He sued the institution in 2005 after it refused his request for the work’s return, with his son, David Cassirer, taking up the legal fight after his father’s death in 2010.

The museum acknowledges that the painting was stolen, but argues that they purchased it from Thyssen-Bornemisza in good faith, with no knowledge of its disputed provenance. It is estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars. The case had been tied up in litigation ever since, until the Supreme Court decided in favor of the family in 2022.

But the recent ruling by the Ninth Circuit reversed that decision in January, on the basis that it was required to apply Spanish law to this case. If AB 2867 is passed, it would give California law prominence over foreign laws in cases involving artwork stolen or lost as a result of political persecution, with relevance beyond cases of Nazi-looted art. Meanwhile, David Cassirer has said he will appeal the ruling, which could bring the case back to the Supreme Court.

Alissa Schapiro, an associate curator and collections specialist at the Skirball Cultural Center who curated the exhibition Reclaimed, focused on one family’s decades-long quest to recover a stolen painting, believes “the laws need to be changed now.”

“The burden should not be on those who have suffered so greatly and their heirs, but rather on the institutions that profit from a tremendous historical wrong,” Schapiro told Hyperallergic. “If museums will not do right by these families on their own, then the legal system must compel them to do so.”

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