The NYT and Daily Mail have this fascinating story about a family’s attempts to reclaim a Pissarro masterpiece looted by the Nazis during World War II. Like another family whose story is told in Woman in Gold, these cases hinge on a contract law claim. Here Claude Cassirer’s family accepted $13,000 in restitution for the painting after World War II. But it turns out the painting surfaced in 1951 in America and was circulated among private collectors. In 1993, the painting was one of many in a collection that a Spanish museum in Madrid bought from a prolific private collector for some $338 million. (It also raises the question of determining art’s ownership history – should a collector or museum have been suspicious if they saw “Berlin” stamped on a storage crate after the fall of the Third Reich?) So the Cassirer family sued the Spanish museum claiming the family actually owns the painting (the $13,000 being an admittedly paltry sum for an original Pissarro*). A California Court has ruled against the family, accepting the Spanish museum’s contract law claim, but importantly from a justice and equity perspective, urging the parties to “pause, reflect” and “work towards a mutually agreeable resolution” in light of Spain’s “commitment to achieve ‘fair and just solutions’ for victims of Nazi persecution” (Slip. Op. at 20).
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*In a less emotionally charged context, IP licensing or royalty fees often miss the mark. The Tolkien Estate (heir to the literary rights to The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, the Simarillion, and other works by the late great J.R.R. Tolkien) has long been locked in a legal battle over royalties with the studio who made the movies. Tolkien himself self the film rights in 1969, before the filmmaking technology existed to make the Academy Award winning Lord of the Rings trilogy or the epic Hobbit trilogy, which grossed billions at the box office. As a result, the Tolkien family has seen little, if any, royalties from the movies.