Norton Simon’s Nazi-Looted Adam and Eve To Head Back to Court

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Lucas Cranach the Elder’s paintings of Adam and Eve at the Norton Simon Museum.
Photo: Rachael Moore/Flickr.

A Nazi loot restitution case involving Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum and Marei Von Saher, the daughter-in-law of Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, over Lucas Cranach the Elder‘s paintings Adam and Eve (both circa 1530), is set to flare up again.

On June 6 a federal appeals court reversed a 2012 decision by U.S. District Judge John Walters dismissing Von Saher’s claim on the grounds that the Dutch government had already complied with the US policy of “external restitution”—which allows Nazi loot cases to be settled according to the terms of other countries’ World War Two restitution protocols—and that to pursue the claim could conflict with US foreign policy. In Friday’s 9th circuit court decision, in which an appellate panel voted 2-1 in favor of reversing the earlier ruling, the judges revived Von Saher’s case and remanded it to Los Angeles. The case can now proceed in district court.

“Von Saher’s claims do not conflict with any federal policy because the Cranachs were never subject to postwar internal restitution proceedings in the Netherlands,” wrote Judge Dorothy Nelson, according to Courthouse News, for majority in the Pasadena panel. “This matter is, instead, a dispute between private parties.”

The Cranach paintings, which Norton Simon acquired from George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff in 1971—they became a part of his namesake museum’s collection when it opened in 1975—were valued at $24 million in 2006.

The paintings’ history is complicated by multiple lootings and suspicious changes-of-hand. Von Saher claims that the works were taken from her father-in-law, a Jewish art dealer in the Netherlands, during World War Two. At one point they hung in the country home of Nazi Reichsmarschall Herman Göring, outside of Berlin. The works were eventually restituted to the Dutch government by the Monuments Men.

Before the 20th century the paintings had been in Kiev’s Church of the Holy Trinity for some 400 years, until the Soviets moved them to the Ukranian Academy of Science’s art museum. At some point the Soviet government decided to auction the works, possibly stealing them from Stroganoff-Scherbatoff’s family collection in order to do so. In 1966 the Dutch government quietly gifted the work back to Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, denying restitution claims by Goudstikker’s wife Desi. Jacques Goudstikker died while crossing the Atlantic to South America after fleeing the Nazis.

“We and our client are delighted with the decision,” Lawrence Kaye, Von Saher’s lead attorney, told the Los Angeles Times. “Her hope is that the Norton Simon will finally do the right thing and return them.”