The Moral Commitment to Return Artwork Wrongfully Taken By the Nazi Regime




The painting at issue, as shown on the collections pages of the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum.


The moral commitment to return an impressionist painting sold under coercion was undermined by the law of Spain, according to a report by the Art Newspaper. The painting at issue, Camille Pissarro’s Rue St. Honoré of 1897, was forcibly sold by the original Jewish owner for a mere $360 so that she could obtain an exit visa to escape Nazi Germany.

The 1976 sale of the painting in New York to Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza raised “numerous red flags” said the judge in the case. Nonetheless, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals determined that Spanish law applied.  According to the decision, Spanish law requires that the buyer, Thyssen-Bornemisza, had to have “actual knowledge” of the earlier wrongful acts to effectively nullify the current ownership. The court did not find that there was actual knowledge of the earlier coerced sale, and therefore decided that the painting is owned by the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum of Spain.

Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, according to the museum’s website, originally consisted of “Europe’s largest private art collection.” The collection was purchased by the government of Spain and moved to Madrid in 1992. The painting was apparently purchased by Spain in either 1992 or 1993 from Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza.

Although Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum already issued a “refusal to return the painting,” the judge’s statement implies that the right thing for the museum to do would be to return the painting to the heirs of Lilly Cassirer Neubauer. Given the prior refusal, this seems doubtful.

Spain is a signatory to the international commitment to return Nazi looted artwork, known as the Washington Principles. However, Artnet reports that Spain is one of a handful of countries that has “made the least effort towards upholding the Washington Principles and returning looted works.” The question is whether Spain will step up now and honor its “moral commitments” or not.


The Art Newspaper | Laura Gilbert May 1, 2019.

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museo Nacional

Washington Conference Principles on Nazi Confiscated Art, 1998, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State

It’s Been 20 Years Since the Creation of the ‘Washington Principles’ to Return Nazi-Looted Art, Artnet | Sara Cascone, Nov. 27, 2018

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