California Museum Can Keep Nazi-Looted Masterpiece

This composite image shows panels of Adam and Eve painted c. 1530
by German Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder. (Norton Simon Art Foundation)

PASADENA, Calif. (CN) – A pair of Renaissance paintings stolen by Nazis and returned to the Netherlands after World War II will remain with the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, California, after the Ninth Circuit ruled Monday it has no power to invalidate an act of the Dutch government.

The life-size panels depicting Adam and Eve have been in the museum’s collection since industrialist Norton Simon purchased them from an American naval officer and former Russian prince in 1971.

Painted around 1530 by German Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder, the panels took an extensive odyssey to the Norton Simon Museum where they are currently displayed.

At one time, Nazi honcho Hermann Göring had the paintings after he seized them in a forced sale from Jewish Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker after the invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940.

Goudstikker died after fleeing the Netherlands, leaving behind some 1,200 artworks.

After the war, Allied forces recovered artwork seized by Göring and gave hundreds of pieces to the Dutch government. The Cranachs were sold to a former Russian prince George Stroganoff-Sherbatoff, who then sold them to Simon.

Desi Goudstikker, Jacques’ wife, attempted to reclaim the artwork through the government’s restitution process from 1946 to 1952, but was unsuccessful.

Her daughter-in-law Marei Von Saher took up the cause and after eight years winding her way through the European courts, von Saher recovered over 200 Goudstikker masterpieces in the largest successful restitution claim of Nazi-looted artwork. She has since sold most of the recovered paintings for tens of millions of dollars.

The Cranachs, however, remained with the Norton Simon Museum.

On Monday, the Ninth Circuit Court affirmed a lower court’s finding that the Netherlands possessed good title of the works under Dutch law when officials sold the paintings in the 1960s.

In the opinion for the Ninth Circuit, U.S. Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown said that in order for Von Saher to recover the works, the court would have to invalidate an official act of the Dutch government which set a 1951 deadline for claimants to file for restoration of rights to works recovered after World War II. Dutch officials rejected Von Saher’s direct petition in 1998, and in 1999 a Dutch appeals court denied her demand for the paintings.

McKeown said the appeals court would also have to invalidate a royal Dutch decree that sought to compensate the Netherlands for losses suffered during the war.

The panel viewed the issue through the lens of state doctrine, where acts of foreign sovereigns taken within their own jurisdictions are deemed valid.

“Because it is ‘essential to’ von Saher’s cause of action that these three official actions of the Dutch government be held invalid, the act of state doctrine applies,” McKeown wrote. She added it’s important to respect the outcome of a nation’s proceedings like the Netherland’s post-war internal restitution efforts, which deemed prospective owners who did not file a claim to property as having forfeited their rights.

“This position makes practical sense,” McKeown wrote. “Reaching into the Dutch government’s post-war restitution system would require making sensitive political judgments that would undermine international comity.”

This is the third time the Ninth Circuit has considered Von Saher’s claim to the Cranachs, and each time Von Saher has been unsuccessful. In her concurring opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw did not beat around the bush.

“So here we are in 2018, over a decade from the date Von Saher filed her federal action, reaching an issue we need not have reached, to finally decide that the Cranachs, which have hung in the Norton Simon Museum nearly 50 years, may remain there.”

In a statement, the Norton Simon Museum said it was pleased with the court’s decision that “should finally put this matter to rest.” The museum said it will continue to make the Cranachs available to the public.

Von Saher said in a statement through her attorney Lawrence Kay with Herrick, Feinstein in New York that she is disappointed in the court’s decision and is “considering her next steps in her long, frustrating battle to achieve justice in this case.”

 

 

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