Norton Simon Museum keeps Cranachs—for now

The Art Newspaper 25 October 2007
Charmaine Picard

Judge rules that time has run out for anyone to claim their restitution

Heir of Jewish art dealer has lost the first round of the battle to reclaim Cranach’s Adam and Eve, around 1530 (detail)
Heir of Jewish art dealer has lost the first round of the battle to reclaim Cranach’s Adam and Eve, around 1530 (detail)

NEW YORK. A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena demanding the return of two life-size paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder to Marei von Saher, heir of Dutch Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker.

Mrs von Saher claims that the works were taken illegally from her father-in-law by Hermann Göring in 1940, and that after their return to the Dutch government, they were incorrectly restituted to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff who sold them to the Norton Simon museum.

In his decision, the US District judge ruled that a 2003 California law resetting the statute of limitations for Holocaust claims to 2010 is unconstitutional, and that that the state’s three-year statute of limitations for personal property claims had run out.

The paintings, which were purchased by the museum in 1971, have hung in its galleries since 1979.

The museum’s legal counsel, Julie Cantor of Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles, declined to comment.
But the New York attorney for Ms von Saher, Lawrence Kaye of Herrick, Feinstein, confirmed that Mrs von Saher intends to appeal.

According to the Norton Simon Museum the case involved two restitution claims and two illegal expropriations.

Court documents state that the Bolsheviks looted the paintings from the Holy Trinity Church in Kiev in the early 1920s—although it is not clear how the works came to be in the church.

By 1930 the Soviet government was in need of hard currency and authorised widespread sales of nationalised art originally in Russian private collections and museums.

The Cranach diptych representing Adam and Eve was put up for sale in May 1931 in an auction titled “Stroganoff Collection”.

Both parties agree that the art dealer Jacques Goudstikker purchased the 16th-century paintings at the public auction, but in her original complaint of 1 May, Mrs von Saher maintains that the paintings were never part of the Stroganoff collection, and that several works from other art collections were included in the sale.

The Cranach panels were listed in Goudstikker’s inventory of art objects unlawfully purchased by Göring in July 1940 for $2m guilders.

At the end of World War II the Allied Forces recovered the Cranach paintings at Carinhall, Göring’s country estate located outside of Berlin, and returned them to the Dutch government “to be held in trust for their lawful owners”.

The paintings remained in the hands of the Dutch until May 1961 when Navy Commander George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, heir to the Stroganoff dynasty, successfully petitioned the Dutch government for their return.

The works were sent to Commander Stroganoff-Scherbatoff who subsequently sold them through a New York art dealer to the Norton Simon Museum in 1971.

But Mrs von Saher maintains that these paintings were sold and not restituted to the Stroganoff heir.

She also claims that Hermann Göring took the Cranach paintings in 1940 and that the museum cannot have legal title to stolen property.

In a landmark case decided in February 2006 the Dutch government agreed to return 202 paintings from Goudstikker's collection to Mrs von Saher after an eight-year battle to reclaim the work from the state national collection.
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