Court Declines to Hear Norton Simon’s Nazi-Loot Appeal

The heir of a Jewish art dealer will get to press her claim.

Detail of Lucas Cranach the Elder's Eve (circa 1530). Courtesy of the Norton Simon.

The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected the appeal of Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum in the case of the ownership of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s paintings Adam and Eve (both circa 1530). The artworks originally belonged to Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, who in 1940 was forced to flee the Netherlands following the Nazi invasion.

The case, which has been in federal court since 2007, was originally dismissed in the museum’s favor in 2012. Goudstikker’s daughter-in-law, Marei Von Saher, got a second chance last June, when a judge ruled that the pursuit of her claims did not conflict with US federal policy.

In response, the Norton Simon appealed in the hopes that a rehearing in the Ninth Circuit by an 11-judge panel would reverse the decision once again. The museum believes that Goudstikker’s widow, Desi, should have pressed her claim with the government of the Netherlands after World War II.

During the war, Goudstikker was forced to sell the paintings to Nazi leader Hermann Göring. The canvases were later recovered by Allied forces and returned to their countries of origin. Desi did not trust that the government would treat her fairly, and refused to negotiate for the paintings’ restitution.


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

Von Saher Had Her Chance

Instead, the works were sold in 1966 to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, a descendant of their pre-Goudstikker owners, who had lost the paintings during Soviet rule. In 1971, the Norton Simon foundation purchased Adam and Eve for $4 million (adjusted for inflation, they were said to be worth $28.3 million in 2006). The institution now argues that Von Saher had her chance under US policy, and her claim conflicts with the country’s right to conduct its foreign affairs.

“Allowing her lawsuit to proceed would encourage the Museum . . . to follow the Washington Principles [which call for restitution],” countered the Ninth circuit in its opinion. “Perhaps most importantly, this litigation may provide Von Saher an opportunity to achieve a just and fair outcome to rectify the consequences of the forced transaction with Göring during the war.”

Though the latest ruling is good news for Von Saher, her lawyer, Herrick Feinstein’s Lawrence Kaye, warned the Art Newspaper that “not all the museum’s technical defenses have been decided.” A judge could still decline to hear the case as it was filed after the statute of limitations expired.

In a statement, the Norton Simon insisted it “remains confident that it holds complete and proper title to Adam and Eve, and will continue to pursue… all appropriate legal options.”

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