Spain managed to maintain
its territory free from World War II, which devastated most of the rest
of Europe. Spain, with a small Jewish community, was not, therefore, a
place where massive plundering of Jewish property took place. Nonetheless,
its strategic situation between Europe, Northern Africa and America and
its close political relationship with Nazi Germany and Italy made Spain
a suitable environment for the individuals and organizations responsible
for the plundering of Jewish-owned art. Their warehouses and logistics
were frequently based in Spain.
Historians have discussed
the exact degree of involvement of Spain for decades. In 1997, the new
Spanish Government led by Mr. José Maria Aznar created a Special
Commission to shed light on this matter. Mr. Enrique Mugica, a former
Minister of Justice, who was elected by the Spanish Parliament as Ombudsman,
was appointed to Chair a Commission named after him (the "Mugica
The Commission had
a balanced membership, including representatives of various departments
of the Spanish administration, as well as art specialists and historians.
Although some of its findings have been strongly contested outside Spain,
in general terms the Mugica Commission fulfilled its duties rapidly and
efficiently. It issued a final public report establishing that Spain did
not co-operate directly in the plundering activities of the Nazis, nor
did it carry out plundering of Jewish property by itself. Nevertheless,
the Mugica Commission also confirmed how important Spain had been for
hiding, storing and exporting plundered property.
The officially stated
low profile kept by Spain during the war has been sometimes understood
by Spanish museums and private collectors to mean that their collections
do not contain art that may have been stolen from Jewish owners in other
countries by the Nazis and their allies. This understanding may, however
be wrong. Political continuity from 1936 to 1976 and a smooth transition
to democracy made Spain the ideal territory to keep hidden art stolen
by the Nazis and an excellent place to transfer plundered works when,
due to the efforts of the victims of the Nazi plundering or their heirs
and international organizations, other countries became increasingly unsafe
for those who sought to keep possession of stolen art.
The role of Spain
as a final destination and safe haven for plundered Jewish art is well
illustrated by the Cassirers case. By the end of the 19th century,
the Cassirers were one of the most prominent Jewish families in Berlin.
Leading art galleries of the city were developed, supported and managed,
at different times, by generation after generation of the Cassirer family.
They also were a major force in publishing, frequently in connection with
fine art subjects. By the end of the 19th century, Paul Cassirer was
generally considered one of the best (if not the best) art specialists
in Germany. Their position as fine arts patrons allowed the Cassirers
a personal and privileged contact with most of the leading painters of
that period. In 1900, Julius Cassirer bought the painting "Rue de
Saint Honoré", by the French impressionist Camille Pissarro,
from the artists close friend and Paris dealer Durand-Ruel. The
painting was subsequently inherited by his son Friedrich and his daughter-in-law
Lilly. Pictures from the 1930s show the beautiful Pissarro painting in
the living room of the Cassirers residence in Munich.
A human disaster followed
the rise to power of the Nazis. Mrs. Lilly Cassirer, a widow by then,
and her grandson Claude, had to flee Germany. Other members of her family,
including her own sister Hanna, who could not escape, were killed by the
Nazis in the death camps. A Nazi agent forced Mrs. Cassirer to surrender
her Pissarro painting to him. Later on, the GESTAPO seized the painting
and included it in an auction in Berlin in 1943. Although Mrs. Cassirer
reported the plundering to U.S., German and international restitution
authorities, the painting disappeared for decades. The anonymous purchaser
of the painting at the 1943 Berlin auction later sold the painting, which
was then sold periodically to other parties, who moved the painting from
one continent to another, until it was acquired by Baron Heinz Heinrich
Thyssen-Bornemisza for his collection, which was subsequently acquired
by the Museum Foundation Collection Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. Visitors
see it now on the walls of the Museum.
In 2001, the Commission
for Art Recovery and Mr. Claude Cassirer, sole heir of Mrs. Lilly Cassirer,
formally petitioned the Board of the Foundation and the Spanish Government,
which controls the Board of the Foundation, to surrender the painting
to its legitimate owner, Mr. Claude Cassirer. Since Spain had attended
the 1998 Washington Conference and had agreed to the Washington Conference
Principles, the Commission had expected the Spanish Government and the
Foundation to honor its commitment under the Washington Conference Principles
and return the painting. In addition, the Commission believes that Spanish
law requires the Spanish Government to return the painting.
The Foundation has, unfortunately, refused to return the painting for reasons such as the statute of limitations, even though the Foundation does not dispute the fact that the painting had been owned by Lilly Cassirer before she was forced to surrender the painting.
The Spanish Government has also refused to take action to return the painting to its proper owner. Moreover, the Spanish Government has refused to meet with the Commission for Art Recovery or to discuss the return of the painting with the Commission for Art Recovery. The Spanish Government has taken the position that the Foundation is a "private" entity, that the painting is private property and not the property of the Spanish Government, and that any claim for the painting had to be filed with the Foundation or the Spanish Courts. The Commission has not accepted the position of the Spanish Government because the Spanish Government (i) provided the funds to acquire the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, (ii) provided the building (and the funds to renovate the building) in Madrid to house the Museum and the Collection, (iii) provided that two-thirds of the Foundation's Board of Directors would be government appointees (with the Minister of Culture serving as the Chair of the Board) and (iv) provided that if for any reason the Foundation would be dissolved, the assets of the Foundation would pass to the Spanish Government.
The Commission for Art Recovery urges the Spanish Government to honor its commitments under the Washington Conference Principles and to return the painting to Mr. Cassirer. The Commission has prepared a "White Paper" on the Cassirer claim, which it delivered to the Spanish Ambassador to the United States in September 2002. (click here to view White Paper)