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$30M Painting At Center Of LA Trial Between US, Spain Over Nazi Looting

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA/AP) – A federal non-jury trial was set to get underway in Los Angeles Tuesday in the nearly two-decade court saga of a San Diego Jewish family who alleges a masterpiece painting which hangs in a Spanish museum was looted from their family by the Nazis almost 80 years ago and should be returned to them.

Camille Pissarro's "Rue Saint-Honore: Afternoon, Rain Effect," which depicts a 19th century Paris street scene, has been housed at the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid since 1993. Pissarro created the stunning oil-on-canvas work of a rainy Paris street scene from what he saw out the window of a hotel room in 1897. It is valued at around $30 million.

Camille Pissarro's Rue Saint-Honore: Afternoon, Rain Effect
Camille Pissarro's "Rue Saint-Honore: Afternoon, Rain Effect," which depicts a 19th century Paris street scene, was painted in 1897. It is currently housed in Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. (Credit: Thyssen-Bornemisza)

According to the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles federal court in 2005, the Nazis confiscated the painting from Lilly Cassirer, whose Jewish family owned a prominent art gallery in Berlin in the 1930s. Lilly Cassirer was among the last of the family to flee ahead of the Holocaust. As she tried to leave Germany, a Nazi official forced her to surrender the painting in exchange for the exit visa she needed. Her sister, who remained, was later killed in a Nazi death camp.

On Tuesday her great-grandson walked into a U.S. courtroom for the latest round of what has been a nearly 20-year battle to get it back.

After years of appeals by both Lilly Cassirer's descendants and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum, a trial to decide its rightful owner went before U.S. District Judge John F. Walter, who himself already ruled on the matter in favor of the Spanish museum three years ago.

In June of 2015, Walter dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that under Spanish law, the Thyssen-Bornemisza is the painting's rightful owner. However, the Cassirer family appealed the ruling, and in July 2017, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals returned the case back to Walter, setting up the December trial.

During the war, the painting was sold by the Nazis to an anonymous buyer, and the Cassirer family believed it was lost until a family friend saw it hanging at the museum 18 years ago.

Neither side disputes that Cassirer handed the painting over to the Nazis in 1939 in exchange for safe passage out of the country for herself, her husband and her grandson.

But the Madrid museum has argued that she forfeited her ownership rights when she accepted $13,000 from Germany in 1958, after the German government concluded the painting was lost forever. The museum also has argued that it acquired the work in good faith and has never tried to hide it.

Court documents show that Swiss industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza purchased the painting in 1976 from a St. Louis art collector. In 1993, Spain bought Thyssen-Bornemisza's collection to hang at his namesake museum, which repeatedly refused to return the painting to the Cassirer family, according to the lawsuit. Thyssen-Bornemisza died in 2002.

Five years after Claude Cassirer, Lilly's grandson, a part-time resident of Coronado, filed suit, a judge dismissed the case. That decision was overturned in 2013 by a federal appeals court, dismissed again by Judge Walter in 2015, and then revived yet again by a federal appeals court in 2017.

Since Claude has died, his 64-year-old son, David Cassirer, has become the plaintiff, along with the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County.

The family's attorney, David Boies, says the matter now boils down to Spain doing what's right and surrendering the painting.

"It's unusual for a modern liberal democracy to be trying to hold onto Nazi-looted art," he said Monday as he prepared for trial. "Every other civilized country in the world is committed to returning Nazi-looted art to the rightful owners."

Lilly Cassirer's father-in-law bought it directly from Pissarro's art dealer and left it to her and her husband when he died.

"There's no dispute about the painting's complete history. The court examined all the evidence and determined that the museum is the rightful owner," Thyssen-Bornemisza's U.S. attorney, Thaddeus J. Stauber, told The Associated Press in 2016 after Walter initially dismissed the case.

(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press and City News Service contributed to this report.)

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