France's top appeals court rejected Wednesday a bid by an American couple to win back a painting by Impressionist master Camille Pissarro which they acquired at auction but had been seized from a Jewish collector during World War II.
The ruling, the definitive and final verdict in a three-year legal process in France -- means the descendants of Jewish businessman Simon Bauer will finally be able to take ownership of the canvas 77 years after it was confiscated.
Art collectors Bruce and Robbi Toll insisted that when they bought the painting -- "La Cueillette" ("Picking Peas") -- at Christie's in New York in 1995 for $800,000, they had no idea it had been looted.
But the Court of Cassation rejected their appeal and upheld an earlier ruling that the painting should be returned to the family of the Jewish collector, according to the text of the verdict seen by AFP.
The decision ends a three-year legal saga over the fate of the painting, where lower courts had repeatedly found in favour of the Bauer family.
The Cassation ruling said that even if the Tolls had acquired the picture in good faith "they could not claim to have become the legal owners".
The descendants of Bauer -- some 20 people -- will now be able to take hold of the painting, which has been kept safely at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris throughout the case.
Bauer family lawyer Cedric Fischer hailed a "historic" decision which he said had returned his clients their "legitimate rights".
For the Tolls, their lawyer Ron Soffer said they plan to take the French state before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
The Tolls "are not unhappy that the Bauer family can reunite with the painting", he said.
"They are unhappy because ultimately they are the ones who have to pay for a crime committed by the Vichy regime," said Soffer, saying the decision "opens a Pandora's box for the courts".
The Vichy regime, France's anti-Semitic wartime government which collaborated with the Nazis, seized 93 paintings from Bauer in 1943.
Bauer died in 1947, two years after the end of World War II. He had been held in the notorious Drancy camp outside Paris from where tens of thousands of Jews were transported to the Nazi death camps but he himself was not deported.
He recovered a few of his paintings after the war, but never "La Cueillette", which Pissarro had painted in 1887.
'Loaned in good faith'
His family acted after seeing the Pissarro painting on display at the Marmottan museum in Paris in 2017 during a retrospective of the artist's work when it was loaned by the Tolls.
"This painting came to France because Mr and Mrs Toll were happy to loan it in good faith for the exhibition," said Soffer.
This latest ruling mirrors other legal disputes over art and property looted from Jewish owners by the Nazis which were subsequently sold on to often unsuspecting new owners.
The Bauer family laywer Fischer said that the ruling would serve as a new precedent.
"It gives an incontestable legal basis to all the actions currently in progress seeking to return to their legitimate owners works of art looted and illegally held by collectors who try to take advantage of their good faith," he said.
It has not been decided what will now happen to the painting, he added.
© Agence France-Presse