"Spain has failed in the restitution of stolen art" | Culture

Ronald Lauder (New York, 1944) is president of the world Jewish congress, but he is also the driving force that has been fighting for 30 years for the restitution of works of art plundered by the Nazis. Founder of the Commission for the recovery of Art and the New York Neue Galerie, Lauder does not hide his frustration with what he considers to be a lack of political will on the part of Europe to repair Nazi plunder. The criticism is especially acute for Spain, which it accuses of failing to fulfill its responsibility when it comes to investigating and restoring stolen works. A former ambassador, collector and influential representative of the Jewish community, he receives this diary in an office in a luxury hotel in Berlin, surrounded by a retinue and security characteristic of a head of state.

A long judicial battle

'Rue Saint-Honoré, Après-midi, Effet de Pluie' by Camille Pissarro.
'Rue Saint-Honoré, Après-midi, Effet de Pluie' by Camille Pissarro. From Agostini / Getty Images

The legal battle between the Cassirer family, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation and the Spanish State has now accumulated more than three decades. The litigation is about a painting by Camille Pisarro, Rue Saint-Honoré, Après-midi, Effet de Pluie, which claims the family of a Jewish woman, forced to sell the painting in 1939 in order to escape from the Nazis. The painting is exhibited in Madrid since 1992.

The celebration of the trial in California is scheduled for next December 4. "What is clarified on Tuesday is whether at the time of purchase, the Foundation knew or could have known that what they were buying was stolen," explains Bernardo Cremades Román, who represents the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, judgment. "There are indications that the analysis at the time of purchase was deficient," he says.

The Foundation argues that in 1993 they acquired the painting without "the minimum indication of bad faith", Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza. "The sale was carried out with maximum publicity and public repercussion," the Foundation recalls in a note, where it explains that the study of the legitimacy at the time of the sale "did not reveal any irregularity." The baron had bought the painting himself in 1976 at Stephen Hahn Gallery in New York and had been part of international exhibitions. But in 2002, the Cassirer family claimed the painting after learning that it was in Madrid. In any case, the Madrid museum maintains that "it would have acquired the property by prescription, for the passage of three years of peaceful and uninterrupted possession in good faith and just title."

Question. What is the main obstacle to achieving restitution of stolen art?

Answer. The lack of transparency and a tool to combat it is digitalization. It is essential so that people can search the collections and know to whom each work belongs and from when. Why can not museums digitize their collections and show the public what they have? It should not be a private initiative. The signatory countries of the Washington principles should promote it, countries such as Spain and Germany.

Q. Can Spain do more?

R. Although Spain supported the principles of Washington, has failed completely in its application, for the restitution of stolen art. The Spanish government commissioned a report in 1998, the conclusions of which were criticized, because it said that Spain had been a transit country during the Holocaust but not a destination for stolen art, despite proven otherwise. Spain decided that it was not responsible for conducting research on the works of art that ended up in Spanish museums during and after the war. Spain does not have restitution laws and its museums do not investigate and that is unacceptable. The greatest example is the Cassirer case.

P. The case will go next Tuesday to the courts in the United States. The museum defends that it was a legitimate acquisition and in good faith in 1993 to Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza.

R. The Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid has the Rue Saint-Honoré, dans l'après-midi. Effet de pluie of Camille Pissarro and that work was sold under duress in 1939 when its owner, Lilly Cassirer-Neubauer, had to flee from Nazi Germany. It was clearly part of the Cassirer family property and must be restored. This case leaves Spain and Thyssen-Bornemisza in a very bad place.

Q. You believe that the Cassiers are going to win the case. Why?

R. Because it is very well documented that this painting belonged to the Cassirer family. Spain defends that there has been acquisitive prescription, [la figura legal que protege a quien haya poseído un objeto de forma pacífica e ininterrumpida], even though it is considered stolen art according to the principles of Washington. Spain should have recognized that returning the painting is the right thing and should have done it a long time ago.

Q. How could the Spanish Government encourage refunds?

R. I have been involved in the restitution of works of art for 30 years. In my experience, you need both political will and laws to get it and Spain does not have either. From the legal point of view in the US and in my personal opinion, if a piece is stolen and the person who owns it knows that it is stolen, it is as guilty as the person who stole it.

Q. Do you think that Germany, the country that should serve as an example, shuffles?

A. There is political will, but actions do not often agree with words. I'm afraid that German museums do not want to do it because it means digitizing 5,000 collections and letting the world see what they have. It is a lot of work and you can lose many works, but in the end, it all comes down to one question. Are you willing to do the right thing?

P. But Germany devotes a lot of resources to restitution and there have been important advances.

R. But they should do more. It has been 20 years since the beginning of Washington and this issue has not been resolved. Often, we see that countries only react to cases like Gurlitt's.

Q. What do you think is the ultimate motivation to hinder the returns to the heirs of the victims of the Holocaust?

A. It is a mixture of greed, intransigence and a lack of extreme sensitivity towards the victims. More and more countries are returning stolen art because they want to defend their reputation and it is a pity that Spain, which has such a wonderful reputation, ignores this issue.

P. Apart from museums, the involvement of private collections is lacking.

R. It is not easy. That required people to open their own private collections and many will not do so voluntarily. A comprehensive strategy is needed for private collections and art sellers.


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