Metro Views: A guide to recovering Nazi-looted art

If Germany does provide compensation statements, this will not help individuals locate a painting. But once a family has German documents, it can post information about its search.

October 9, 2010 23:06
4 minute read.
Rue St.-Honoré, Après-Midi Effet de Pluie painting

Rue St.-Honoré, Après-Midi, Effet de Pluie painting 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Claude Cassirer was a lucky man. He and the grandmother who raised him, Lilly Cassirer Neubauer, and her husband, Otto, were able to escape the Nazis in Germany in 1939. They had something to barter for their freedom: a Camille Pissarro painting, Rue St.-Honoré, Après-Midi, Effet de Pluie. Claude escaped to England, later came to the US, made a career as a portrait photographer in Cleveland, Ohio, married his sweetheart, Beverly, and had two children. Some decades ago, Claude and Beverly retired to San Diego, California.

He also was lucky because, unlike many Nazi victims, he had evidence that his family had owned the painting. Among the family documents was a photo of the Pissarro hanging in his grandmother’s salon.

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Cassirer was lucky, too, because he learned where the painting was after World War II: in the Thyssen- Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.

Finally, Cassirer had the support of the US government in his efforts to recover the painting.

The State Department interceded, reminding Spain that it was among the 44 nations that agreed in 1998, at an international conference on Holocaust-era assets, to the so-called Washington Principles. According to these principles, governments were expected to encourage resolutions for artworks that had been transferred under questionable circumstances between 1933 and 1945.

All these factors should have made Cassirer the poster child for a smooth and speedy recovery of his family’s Pissarro.

But Spain balked, saying the Thyssen-Bornemisza was a private institution and not covered by the Washington Principles. “This is incorrect,” said Stuart Eizenstat, who served as undersecretary of state in 1998 and negotiated the principles. “The [Spanish] government purchased the [Thyssen-Bornemisza] collection, renovated the building which houses it, and there are public officials on the governing board,” he told me. Despite the hairsplitting, the museum was covered by the principles.

When the US proved to be impotent in budging Spain, Cassirer swallowed his disappointment that federal diplomacy had failed. He filed a lawsuit in federal court in California for his Pissarro.

Although the case has yet to be concluded, Claude Cassirer has already won some important victories for claimants. In the latest go-round, Spain had argued that it did not steal the artwork; the Nazis took it. Thus, there was no basis to sue Spain.

However, last August the federal appellate court ruled that although the Nazis, not Spain, were responsible for the theft, in this case American law does not make distinctions between the plunderer and the possessor. The law is concerned with property “taken in violation of international law,” and is silent on the question of who actually took it.

Cassirer will never know whether the appellate decision will stand or if his family will recover the painting. He died in San Diego on September 25. He was 89. The battle now belongs to his son, David.

LIKE MANY Nazi victims, Lilly Cassirer Neubauer received postwar compensation, a settlement from the West German government for her stolen property. German compensation doesn’t extinguish a family’s title to lost artworks. Instead, if victims succeed in recovering paintings, they are expected to repay the prior compensation to Germany.

Many victims’ heirs, like Claude, are the grandchildren of the prewar owners. Unlike Claude, however, they may be unaware that the family owned art, or may not have the documentation to prove it.

If you have good reason to believe your family owned art looted by the Nazis and received compensation for it from West Germany after the war, German compensation records may prove your claim.

Unfortunately, although the Germans have been asked three times since 2007 to create lists of the artworks for which successful compensation claims have been made, they have not done so.

As long as the German government remains derelict in organizing documentation to aid heirs, it is up to families to aggressively seek German records and make public information about missing artworks.

Because postwar Germany is a highly decentralized nation, relatives of victims must be prepared to contact multiple German offices to obtain documentation on postwar claims.

If Germany does provide compensation statements, this will not help individuals locate a painting. But once a family has German documents, it can post information about its search, thus alerting museums and auction houses to be vigilant.

It has been a dozen years since the 1998 Washington Principles. With rare exceptions, the burdens for locating and documenting Nazi-era art losses still rest with the victims and their heirs. Write letters to the offices below.

Ask for proof of claims for cultural properties for family members who escaped the Nazis and survived the Shoah. Seek documentation for any settlements, and for those that were rejected.

Ask for referrals to other German federal and local offices and archives that may be useful in your search. And if you learn that a relative received German compensation for an artwork that was not recovered, post the information on

Artworks pop up at random.

The next one could belong to your family.

Bundesfinanzdirektion West
(Federal Finance Office West; this office can provide information on all questions relating to compensation for National Socialist injustice) Arbeitsbereich RF 42 C
Zentrale Auskunftsstelle zur Wiedergutmachung nationalsozialistischen Unrechts Wörthstrasse 1-3 50668
Cologne, Germany

Bezirksregierung Düsseldorf
Dezernat 15
Postfach 30 08 65 D – 40408
Düsseldorf, Germany

Bundesamt für zentrale Dienste und offene Vermögensfragen (BADV)
(Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues)
Referat B 1, DGZ-Ring 12 13086
Berlin, Germany

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