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California Law on Nazi Art Won’t Aid Dutch Heir

(CN) - A woman who says she is the heir to medieval paintings looted by the Nazis and now on display at a California museum cannot sue for recovery, a federal judge ruled.

The order to dismiss with prejudice marks the second and apparently final rejection of the claims by Marei Von Saher, granddaughter of Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker.

"It is again with great reluctance that the court concludes that plaintiff's claims are preempted by the foreign affairs doctrine, realizing the effect that this decision may have on victims of the Holocaust and their descendants," U.S. District Judge John Walter wrote. "As the court stated in its previous order, there are no words which can adequately describe the atrocities suffered by the victims of the Holocaust, which continue to have an effect on those victims and their descendants today,"

Goudstikker had bought the 16th century diptych titled "Adam and Eve" at a Berlin auction in 1931. Attributed to Lucas Cranach the Elder, the diptych is a pair of oil paintings on wood panels.

When Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, however, Goudstikker fled to South America and left his art gallery and collection behind.

The Nazis inevitably looted the gallery. "Herman Göring, reischsmarschall of the Third Reich, and his cohort, Aloïs Miedl, forcibly purchased the Goudstikker assets in two transactions at a fraction of their value," according to the court. "Miedl took Goudstikker's real property, the art dealership itself, and personal property, whereas Göring took most of the dealership's inventory of art, including the Cranachs."

Though the Allied Forces returned "Adam and Eve" to the Netherlands in 1946, Goudstikker's wife, Desi, settled her restitution claims without mention of the works that Goring had seized.

Saher filed a new restitution claim with the Dutch government for those works when she inherited Goudstikker's estate in 1996.

By that time, however, the Netherlands had released "Adam and Eve" to a Stroganoff heir, former Prince and U.S. Naval Commander George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, who named his family as the paintings' rightful heir. Stroganoff then sold "Adam and Eve" to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif.

After the Netherlands rejected Saher's claim as time-barred, she appealed unsuccessfully to the Hague and then sued the museum in 2007. The federal complaint in the Central District of California sought relief under a state law that extended the statute of limitations for the recovery of Holocaust-era art until 2010.

A federal judge struck that law down as unconstitutional, however, and rejected Saher's claims as otherwise time-barred. When 9th Circuit agreed that the law was unconstitutional, California lawmakers amended the statute in 2010.

Saher meanwhile amended her claims as dictated by the circuit, but the trial court decided that the suit still cannot stand.

An apologetic Walter found Saher's claim put her in direct conflict with United States' external restitution policy, which gave newly liberated countries discretion in compensating the original owners of art stolen by the Nazis.

"In this case, the United States made a decision and chose its favored remedy for the restitution of Nazi-looted art, i.e. a country of origin's bona fide restitution proceedings," he wrote. "This external restitution policy has not changed since it was first adopted by the United States after World War II. However, plaintiff's action seeks to trump and interfere with United States foreign policy, by relying on an entirely different remedy for the restitution of Nazi-looted art, i.e. the laws of the state of California."

"Moreover, if the court were to allow plaintiff's claims to proceed, the court undoubtedly would be forced to review the restitution decisions made by the Dutch government and courts, including for example whether plaintiff's claims had in fact been 'settled,'" he added. "Such a determination by the court would seriously undermine the federal government's policy of respecting the finality and outcome of the Dutch government's restitution proceedings and would potentially implicate the act of state doctrine. Allowing plaintiff's action to proceed would have more than incidental effect in conflict with express foreign policy of the national government."

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