Legal victory for Jewish family seeking to recover $20 million, Nazi-looted painting

SAN DIEGO - A federal appeals court has handed a major legal victory to a San Diego family amid a decades-old struggle to recover a $20 million painting confiscated by the Nazis.

In a photo taken in the 1920s, the masterpiece by Camille Pissarro is seen hanging on the wall of the home of Lilly Cassirer.

In 1939, months before World War II officially began, Cassirer's Jewish family was forced to flee Germany.

"A Nazi appraiser said she could go but had to leave her painting behind and gave it to him. She did that and it saved her life. Her sister stayed behind to take care of their mother. Her sister died in a concentration camp," said Stuart Dunwoody, attorney for the Cassirer family.

Dunwoody said after the war, Cassirer tried but couldn't locate the painting and accepted about $13,000 in restitution from the German government.

Lilly Cassirer died in 1962.

In 2000, her sole heir, her grandson and San Diegan Claude Cassirer, discovered the painting was hanging in a Spanish museum, placed there by a German art collector.

Claude sued to recover it, but a court dismissed the lawsuit by striking down a new state law allowing the recovery of lost art dating back as far as a century.

A federal appeals court reversed that decision, paving the way for a civil trial.

"We are just really pleased," said Michael Sonduck, president of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County.

Sonduck is a plaintiff in the suit after the group was named an heir after Claude Cassirer passed away.

Sonduck said this battle is about recovering not just a piece of art, but recovering the legacy of generations of Jews destroyed by the Nazis.

"You can't rebuild it, but every effort to recover a piece of that life is for the families, and through them, for the Jewish people, it's quite important," said Sonduck.

"The Cassirers want to right the wrong that was done to their family in 1939.

Claude Cassirer's 93-year-old widow Beverly still lives in the San Diego. Claude's two children live in Colorado and Ohio.

Lawyers for the Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, the technical owner of the painting, point to the $13,000 restitution accepted by the family, contending Lilly Cassirer gave up her ownership claims in agreeing to the settlement.

"The foundation continues to maintain its rightful ownership of the painting," said Thaddeus Stauber, attorney for the foundation.

The family said accepting restitution for a lost painting didn't mean they gave up ownership of the painting once it was found.

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