Attorney General Bonta Stands Up for Ability of Descendants of Holocaust Survivors to Recover Art Stolen by Nazis

Thursday, July 7, 2022
Contact: (916) 210-6000,

Files legal brief urging Ninth Circuit to reverse ruling that blocked lawsuit seeking return of painting to California family from Spanish museum

OAKLAND – California Attorney General Rob Bonta today announced filing an amicus brief in support of the Cassirer family’s efforts to recover a painting stolen from them by Nazis during the Holocaust. The oil painting — an 1897 work by French impressionist Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro entitled Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon. Effect of Rain — is currently on display at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, Spain. In the friend-of-the-court brief, the Attorney General highlights the state’s strong interest in helping Holocaust victims and their descendants seek justice and urges the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reverse a lower court ruling that blocked the family's lawsuit seeking the return of the painting.

“While nothing can undo the horrors the Cassirer family and millions of Jews suffered during the Holocaust, the simple act of returning a family heirloom is the right — and legally sound — thing to do,” said Attorney General Bonta. “Finders keepers might work on a playground, but it shouldn’t work in a court of law. My office respectfully urges the Ninth Circuit to apply our state’s laws and support a California family’s fight to recover a painting unjustly stolen by Nazis.”

In 1939, Lilly Cassirer Neubauer and her husband sought to flee Nazi Germany in the face of increasing persecution. In order to obtain exit visas, they were forced to “sell” the painting in question to a Nazi art appraiser. Although they later received monetary compensation from the German government, the Cassirer family never waived their right to seek restitution or the return of the lost painting. Unbeknownst to the family, the painting was sold to a dealer in Beverly Hills in 1951, subsequently sold to a Missouri art dealer in 1952, re-sold to a Dutch-born Swiss Baron in 1976, and finally purchased by the Kingdom of Spain in 1992. In 2000, a descendant of the Cassirer family who had moved to San Diego in 1980 discovered that the painting was on display at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and promptly filed a petition with the Kingdom of Spain seeking its return. When the petition was rejected, the family filed a lawsuit in California in 2005 asserting property claims under California law. Over the years, the case worked its way through the courts and was ultimately remanded back to the Ninth Circuit by the U.S. Supreme Court on April 21, 2022 for further consideration. Under California law, victims of art theft are entitled to make their claims against museums in possession of stolen art for up to six years after discovery.

In the amicus brief, Attorney General Bonta asserts:

  • The district court misidentified the relevant laws in reaching its decision;
  • California’s interests will be more substantially impaired by an adverse ruling;
  • Because many wrongs occurred in multiple jurisdictions, the painting’s current location is not as important;
  • California’s modern law on recovering stolen art from museums outweighs Spain’s older adverse possession law; and
  • Applying California’s law will achieve the maximum attainment of the underlying purpose of all the relevant laws based on the parties’ expectations.

A copy of the amicus brief is available here.

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