By Upper School history teacher Jeanne Barr
In the Crimes Against Humanity sophomore Modern World History seminar, we study the evolution of international human rights law, currently focusing on the Nazis and working our way up to putting one of the high command on trial. When sophomore Quentin Stauber told me his uncle recently argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court about a Camille Pissarro painting stolen by the Nazis, I was immediately interested—my course explores themes including the law, courts and trials, and the stolen art theme is always compelling. So we invited LA-based Thaddeus Stauber, of the law firm Nixon-Peabody, to Zoom with us about his work in fine art litigation—what a great opportunity to learn from someone using the law to resolve past atrocities, especially interesting as the invasion of Ukraine generates a new modern refugee crisis.
I reached out to other sophomore Modern World History teachers to see if they wanted their students to join us, since all our second-semester seminars touch on WWII themes. There was enough interest to invite all the sophomores and use Graderoom period in the library for a common experience.
Stauber told us the story of a particular Impressionist painting—Rue Saint-Honoré, Afternoon, Rain Effect—that its Jewish-German owners, the Cassirers, were forced to sell in the 1930s in exchange for safe passage out of Germany. Years later, descendants of the original survivors learned the painting, now worth millions, had been donated by its Swiss owners to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, displayed in a Spanish museum, and the Cassirer family has been trying to get it back ever since. Stauber alone has been working on this case for 16 years.
The crux of the current legal case comes down to which jurisdiction has authority—is it the state of California (where the descendants live and where they filed suit)? Or should Spanish law govern the outcome, since that’s where the painting is now? The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Cassirer v. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation
this past January, with Stauber representing the museum. Simplifying things a bit, if SCOTUS rules that California has jurisdiction, the Cassirer family can possibly get the painting back from the museum. If SCOTUS rules the case should be decided under Spanish law, they can’t.
Stauber did an excellent job breaking down the case for us, walking the 10th graders through the intricacies of “diversity of jurisdiction” questions. Along the way, he gave us a sweeping overview of how provenance of artworks from the Nazi era hinges on treaties resolving World Wars I and II, mid-century refugee crises, the Cold War, the collapse of communism, the strange persistence of the Napoleonic Code, and the complexity of dual sovereignty under American federalism. He showed us not only how complicated this all is, but how issues of property rights, regime change, and war crimes are intertwined and ongoing. He invoked the Ukraine invasion multiple times, giving us a sense that these issues are not going away anytime soon. And he gave us insight into how a self-proclaimed “guy from Sheboygan” crafted a multi-continent career in the international art world—inspiring!
We are very thankful to Stauber for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with our sophomore class.