US lawsuits pursue lost art

Is that a Nazi-plundered masterpiece in your museum? It may not be there for long.

Growing up as a young boy in Germany, Claude Cassirer had a front seat to the sophisticated culture of prewar Berlin. He'd sit in his grandmother's parlor, soaking in the conversation, the fine furniture and a striking Pissarro painting of rainy-day Paris, a reminder of his family's close ties to impressionist painters.

"Before Hitler, we led a very pleasant life," recalls Mr. Cassirer, a retired photographer who lives near San Diego. "Then all of a sudden my father didn't have the options he had, and my grandparents were threatened with concentration camps."

His immediate family fled Germany, leaving the painting to the Nazis, and Cassirer didn't see it again until 2000, when a friend discovered it in an art book. Upon hearing the news, "I nearly fainted," says Cassirer. "It means my whole life; it means my whole past."

Five years later, the painting, claimed by a Madrid museum, is the focus of an international legal dispute that spotlights America's growing reputation as the friendliest place on earth for people looking to reclaim stolen art.

Armed with a new US Supreme Court precedent, Cassirer and others are taking on foreign governments - in this case, Spain - to force the return of artwork. But the plaintiffs face big obstacles, ranging from resistant museums and murky ownership records to less-than-sympathetic European law. And then there's the matter of enforcement: if you win a lawsuit against Austria or the city of Amsterdam - both defendants in current cases - how do you collect?

Thieves have been running off with art for millenniums, at least since early Egyptians started robbing tombs. But looting took on an official flavor in the 1930s and 1940s as the ruling Nazis plundered art collections in both Germany and occupied countries.

Some Jewish families were left with nothing; others, like the Cassirers, got a pittance for their possessions. Hundreds of thousands of artworks landed in Nazi hands.

The 1897 Pissarro painting "Rue Saint-Honore, Afternoon, Rain Effect" now sits in the world-renowned Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. According to the Cassirer family, it's worth an estimated $15 million to $20 million.

The worth of other paintings at stake in international lawsuits is estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Some critics accuse the claimants of greed and fear the artwork will vanish from public view.

But money is hardly the sole motivation for those seeking to recover stolen art, according to Louis Marchesano, curator of prints and drawings at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. Families, he says, are trying to reunite with their past.

"It has to do with the social or cultural identity that's attached to the very act of collecting," he says. "You had these bourgeois, upper- and middle-class collectors, in Germany and other countries. They were identifying themselves as people of taste, people of culture. By stripping these people of their possessions, the Nazis were dehumanizing them as part of a larger campaign."

In both the US and abroad, some museums have returned plundered artwork to their owners or their descendants, especially during in the 1990s when art stolen during the Holocaust became a cause célèbre. But other museums seek support in European laws that emphasize statutes of limitations and the ownership rights of those who made purchases in "good faith," says Willi Korte, a Washington D.C. investigator who specializes in stolen art.

That's where the US comes in. "If you want to sue, you sue in this country," Mr. Korte says.

The Supreme Court helped matters last year when it paved the way for Americans to sue foreign countries over stolen art. The case revolved around a family's claims to six paintings by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt that were allegedly stolen by Nazis and landed in the Austrian National Gallery.

Another case, involving claims by the family of Russian artist Kasimir Malevich to his paintings at Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum, is now working its way through a US federal district court. Even if American plaintiffs win their cases, they'll face the challenge of convincing foreign governments to cough up the artwork. The US could seize foreign assets or grab the paintings if they travel here, but that would be an extreme move.

There's another possibility, however. American lawyers who work on stolen art cases say many disputes are handled privately, outside the court system. Bad publicity and the expense of hiring attorneys to fight lawsuits could convince foreign museums to try that route. Ultimately, "the point of these [legal] efforts is to generate pressure that these people come back to the bargaining table," Korte says. "At the least, you can cause the other side considerable financial pain."

Cassirer plans to continue his fight.

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