(CN) – A state law that allows Californians to recover art stolen by Nazis is unconstitutional because it infringes on the federal government’s foreign affairs powers, the 9th Circuit ruled in a case involving a 16th century piece by Lucas Cranach in the Norton Museum of Art in Pasadena.
The circuit found that the scope of the 2002 statute is too broad and goes beyond providing redress to California’s victims of Nazi looting.
According to circuit Judge David R. Thompson, the law’s language “suggests that California’s real purpose was to create a friendly forum for litigating Holocaust restitution claims, open to anyone in the world to sue a museum or gallery located within or without the state.”
The piece of art at the center of the appeal, a diptych of Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder, still hangs in the Norton Simon Museum. The Southern California museum bought the painting in 1971.
Marei von Saher, the only surviving heir of the late art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, sued the museum in 2007, claiming the painting was stolen by Nazis in 1941 from Goudstikker’s Netherlands gallery.
She produced a black notebook kept by Goudstikker that listed more than 1,000 works of art – including the Cranach – that he left behind while fleeing the Nazis.
The Norton Simon Museum won dismissal after arguing that the law was unconstitutional because it violated the foreign affairs doctrine.
The Pasadena-based panel agreed, but the ruling may not end Saher’s quest to get the painting back. Splitting with the district court, the circuit judges said Saher may be able to sue the museum under a California civil code that provides a 3-year statute of limitations for recovering stolen property.