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Paintings taken by Nazis may belong to Dutch Holocaust survivor's family: Court


The relative of a Dutch Holocaust survivor whose family was forced to sell two 16th-century paintings to the Nazis may be their rightful owner, says a federal appellate court in overturning a lower court ruling dismissing the relative’s claim against the museum that now has the paintings.

The paintings in questions, which are two life-size panels depicting Adam and Eve painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in the 16th century, have a complex history, according to Friday’s ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in Marei Von Saher v. Norton Simon Museum of Art at Pasadena; Norton Simon Art Foundation.

For the 400 years following their creation in 1530, the art hung in a Kiev, Ukraine, church, according to the ruling. Soviet authorities transferred the paintings to a Kiev art museum in 1927. In 1931, Jacques Goudstikker, who was Jewish, obtained the paintings in an auction that also included works previously owned by the Stroganoff family.

The Goudstikker family fled when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, but left behind a gallery that contained more than 1,200 artworks, including the Cranachs, according to the ruling.

Back in the Netherlands, Mr. Gottstikker’s mother, Emilie, who stayed behind, was persuaded to sell her minority block of shares in the gallery to effectuate a “sale” of the gallery’s assets for a fraction of their value. A total of 800 of the most valuable pieces in the collection, including the Cranachs, were then obtained by high Nazis official Herman Göring, according to the ruling.

The Allies recovered Nazis-looted art, including the Cranachs, and returned the pieces from the Goudstikker collection to the Dutch so they could be held in trust for the family. But In 1946, the Dutch government determined it had no obligation to restore the looted property to the Goudstikker family, the ruling said.

In 1961, George Stroganoff Scherbatoff claimed the Soviet Union had wrongly seized the Cranachs from his family and unlawfully sold the paintings to Jacques Goudstikker, and the Dutch government transferred the paintings to him in 1966. He sold them to a New York art dealer who sold them in turn to Norton Simon Museum of Art. The sale price was not disclosed in the ruling.

Ms. Van Saher, the widow of Mr. Gottstikker’s grandson, sued the museum for the paintings in 2007. Complex litigation ensued, which resulted in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles agreeing to dismiss the case, holding that return of the paintings to Ms. Van Saher would violate United States policy, which respects the finality of the Netherland’s restitution proceedings.

A panel of the 9th Circuit disagreed in a 2-1 ruling.

“Van Saher’s claims do not conflict with any federal policy because the Cranachs were never subject to postwar internal restitution proceedings in the Netherlands,” says the ruling.

“This litigation may provide Van Saher an opportunity to achieve a just and fair outcome to testify the consequences of the forced transaction with Göring during the war, even if such a result is no longer capable of being expeditiously obtained,” said the appellate ruling.

The majority panel remanded the case to the lower court to determine whether a ruling in Ms. Van Saher’s favor violates the “act of state doctrine,” under which a state in “one country will not sit in judgment on the acts of the government of another.”

The dissenting opinion in the case held Ms. Vans Saher’s claims violated federal policy.