A federal appeals court has revived the fight by an heir to 16th century paintings of Adam and Eve looted by Nazi Herman Goring during World War II, to force the Norton Simon Museum to return the paintings.
Marei Von Saher won reinstatement of her lawsuit by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday, claiming two life-size panels of Adam and Eve painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1530 were looted from her late father-in-law, Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker.
The appeals court held, in a 2-1 vote, her lawsuit did not interfere with federal policy because the Cranach paintings were never subject to postwar internal restitution proceedings in the Netherlands.
The matter is “a dispute between private parties,” Judge Dorothy Nelson wrote.
Goudstikker bought the famous panels from the Soviet government in 1931 as the young Communist government sold off state-owned art at auction. The panels had hung for 400 years in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Kiev, Ukraine but were moved to a Soviet art museum in 1927.
Goudstikker, who was Jewish, fled the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands but died on a ship headed to South America. His notebook recording nearly 1,200 works in his art collection, including the Cranach panels, was found after his death.
Goudstikker’s family was forced to sell his collection for a fraction of its value to high-level Nazi Reichsmarschall Herman Goring after Goudstikker fled. Goring displayed the Cranach’s at his estate outside Berlin.
After the war the Allies attempted to recover looted property and return it to rightful owners. Pieces in the Goudstikker collection were returned to the Dutch government to hold in trust for lawful owners, Goudstikker’s widow Desi and son Edo.
Goudstikker’s widow decided to forego the Dutch restitution process, because recipients of restored works were required to repay any monies they received for them from the Nazis and she would have to endure years of litigation.
The Dutch characterized the sale to Goring as voluntary and thus the government had no obligation to restore the collection to the family. In 1966 they passed the works to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff without telling Desi and Edo. The NortonSimonMuseum bought them from Stroganoff in 1971.
Von Saher, the widow of Goudstikker’s son Edo, has fought to get the works back for seven years, based on a U.S. law that allowed for claims to recover property looted from Nazis until 2010.
Because Desi did not use the war-time restitution process the dispute remains between the claimed heir and the museum, according to the court.
The case was sent back to the federal judge in Los Angeles.
In dissent, Judge Kim Wardlaw said the ruling would upset the federal policy with respect to the finality of the Dutch restitution process.
Case: Von Saher v. NortonSimonMuseum, No. 12-55733