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U.S. Supreme Court sides with San Diego family in Nazi-looted painting suit

La Mesa resident Claude Cassirer's grandmother, Lilly Cassirer, inherited the painting but surrendered it to the Nazis in 1939.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday revived a lawsuit brought by a La Mesa resident who claimed he and his family should have ownership of a French Impressionist painting looted from their ancestor by the Nazis.

The dispute over Camille Pissarro's "Rue Saint-Honore, Afternoon, Rain Effect" stems from a lawsuit filed by now-deceased La Mesa resident Claude Cassirer, who alleged he and his family should retain ownership of the painting rather than the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, an entity controlled by the Kingdom of Spain.

Cassirer's grandmother, Lilly Cassirer, inherited the painting but surrendered it to the Nazis in 1939 in order to obtain an exit visa and escape Berlin. The painting exchanged hands over the decades and was eventually sold to the foundation, which placed it in its museum in Madrid.

Claude Cassirer later discovered the painting was hanging in the foundation's museum and after undergoing attempts to have it returned, sued to regain it.

While lower courts ruled that Spanish property law should govern the painting's ownership -- resulting in a ruling awarding the piece to the foundation -- the high court unanimously ruled that the case should return to a lower court and California law should be applied to determine the painting's ownership.

"The path of our decision has been as short as the hunt for Rue Saint- Honoré was long; our ruling is as simple as the conflict over its rightful owner has been vexed," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in Thursday's opinion.

The family's attorneys say they will prevail because California law does not allow purchases of stolen goods even if the buyer purchased it in good faith.

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