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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Postfach 30 08 65 D – 40408
Bundesamt für zentrale Dienste und offene Vermögensfragen (BADV)
(Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues)
Referat B 1, DGZ-Ring 12 13086
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