Woman suing Norton Simon for Nazi-looted art has Florida success

LA Times 27 June 2014
By Mike Boehm

"Vanitas," a 1600s painting by Jacques Adolphz. de Claeuw, was looted by the Nazis from a prominent Jewish art dealer.

Marei von Saher, who sued to recover prized Renaissance paintings that have been a highlight of the Norton Simon Museum since the 1970s, has reached a settlement with a Florida museum over a 1600s still-life that also was looted by the Nazis.

The paintings in Florida and Pasadena, including the Norton Simon's disputed “Adam and Eve,” had been owned by Jacques Goudstikker, a prominent Jewish art dealer who fled the Nazi invasion of Holland in 1940 with his family. He left behind an art trove that was seized by Hermann Goering, one of the Third Reich's top overlords.

The collection included Lucas Cranach the Elder's 1530 paired paintings of Adam and Eve that hang at the Norton Simon, and "Vanitas" by the Dutch artist Jacques Adolphz. de Claeuw, bought in the early 1960s by the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Fla.

A written announcement from Von Saher’s attorneys this week said the Connecticut woman’s ownership claim to “Vanitas” has been “resolved amicably” without a suit being filed.

The Cummer Museum acknowledged that Von Saher owned the painting, paid her an undisclosed sum that was less than its full value, then accepted it back from her as a donation made in memory of her father-in-law, Goudstikker, who died in an aboard-ship accident while fleeing the Nazis.

"The museum's admirable decision to return the painting” prompted Von Saher to donate it back, according to the announcement of the settlement this week by Herrick, Feinstein, the New York City law firm that represents her.

The announcement did not mention Von Saher's related claim against the Norton Simon, but her comments tacitly contrasted the approaches taken by the museums in Jacksonville and Pasadena. The Norton Simon has fought for more than seven years in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to parry Von Saher’s claim to the far more valuable “Adam and Eve.”

“It is heartening to see museums like the Cummer do the right thing for Holocaust victims and their heirs,” she said in her written statement. “We hope that the restitution of this work will lead other museums to act just as responsibly when faced with the discovery of Nazi-looted art in their collections.”

There is probably little comparison between the Cummer and Norton Simon paintings when it comes to historical significance and monetary value. A 2006 insurance appraisal valued the Pasadena museum’s “Adam and Eve” at $24 million. A De Claeuw still life that’s being auctioned July 10 at Sotheby’s in London has an estimated sale price of $67,000 to $101,000. The Jacksonville museum's De Claeuw is more than three times larger than the one going under the gavel.

Von Saher was on the brink of losing her case over “Adam and Eve” until earlier this month, when, in a 2-1 vote, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a 2012 dismissal of her suit and sent the case back to Los Angeles for further proceedings before U.S. District Judge John Walter.

The Norton Simon Museum has declined to comment on the ruling, except for a written statement saying that it “remains confident that it holds complete and proper title to Adam and Eve, and will continue to pursue ... all appropriate legal actions.”

The Norton Simon has requested and been granted extra time for filing a request to have the case reheard, either by the same three-judge panel that issued the June 6 opinion reinstating Von Saher’s case, or by an “en banc” panel made up of 11 9th Circuit judges.

If the museum decides not to seek a rehearing or its request to have one is denied - or if it has a rehearing and loses again - its last resort for winning the case without further proceedings in L.A. would be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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