California court says Cranach suit can go ahead

The Art Newspaper 3 April 2015
By Charlotte Burns

Statute of limitations does not apply in Goudstikker heirs’ claim against Norton Simon Museum, ruling finds

California’s District Court has emphatically denied a motion to dismiss a case about the ownership of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s life-size Adam and Eve, around 1530.

This court ruling is the latest twist in a bitter legal battle that began in Federal Court in 2007 when Marei von Saher, the heir of Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, filed for ownership of the paintings.

They were part of a collection of more than 1,200 works owned by Goudstikker, who fled the Netherlands in 1940 after the Nazi invasion. The painting were hung outside the home of Nazi Reichsmarschall Herman Göring at one point during the war, according to von Saher’s court filings, but were returned by Allied Forces to the Netherlands in 1945. The Dutch government retained the diptych until 1966 when it was transferred to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, whose family had owned it before Goudstikker, according to the museum.

The Norton Simon Museum bought the paintings from Stroganoff in 1970-71. Last month, together with the Norton Simon Art Foundation, the museum filed a motion with the California District Court to dismiss the heirs’ claim. It argued that, because Marei von Saher’s “predecessor-in-interest, Desi, actually discovered that the Cranachs were in possession of the Dutch government some time between 1946 and 1952 […and chose] not to bring a claim for recovery at that time,” the statute of limitations expired “some time in the 1950s”, according to the court papers.

Von Saher argued that the case only began when she discovered the works were at the Norton Simon, in October 2000.

The court found that: “the fact that the statute of limitations may have expired as to an owner’s claim against the thief (or prior possessor) is irrelevant”. Because a “thief cannot convey valid title no matter how much time has passed, the subsequent possessor’s acquisition of stolen property constitutes a new conversion… the owner is entitled to a new limitations period”, according to the court papers.

The court chastened the museum in its ruling, stating “that there is nothing unfair about affording plaintiff an opportunity to pursue the merits of her claims against Norton Simon… Museums are sophisticated entities that are well-equipped to trace the provenance of the fine art that they purchase.”

The ruling states: “After carefully weighing the equities, the legislature determined that the importance of allowing victims of stolen art an opportunity to pursue their claims supersedes the hardship faced by museums and other sophisticated entities in defending against potentially stale ones.”

It concludes that the plaintiff, “whose family suffered terrible atrocities at the hands of the Nazis, will now have an opportunity to pursue the merits of her claims, and Norton Simon will have an opportunity to pursue any and all defenses to those claims.”
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