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Schwarzenegger decision could have an impact on looted-art claim against Norton Simon Museum

September 30, 2010 | 10:41 pm

CranachAdamEve A stroke of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pen could influence a high-stakes art saga: Marei Von Saher’s claim that two of the Norton Simon Museum’s prized paintings are  rightfully hers.

The governor, facing a deadline of midnight Thursday, signed into law a bill concerning stolen artworks that could help the Connecticut woman's chances of securing a trial in her bid to recover the nearly 500-year-old pair of “Adam and Eve” paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, which were valued at $24 million when the Pasadena museum had them appraised in 2006.

The bill, AB2765, was passed last month by the Assembly and Senate. It would extend from three to six years the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit against a museum, gallery or art dealer in order to recover stolen art or other items of “historical, interpretive, scientific [or] cultural importance” that were taken during the past 100 years. It applies both to future lawsuits, and to those already pending.

Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) said the bill rose from a ruling last year by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals striking down a California law that had relaxed the statute of limitations for lawsuits by owners or heirs trying to recover artworks stolen during the Holocaust. The appeals court, which was reviewing a federal judge’s dismissal of Von Saher’s suit, ruled that the looted-art law was an unconstitutional intrusion by the state on foreign policy matters that are strictly under the federal government’s jurisdiction. But the 9th Circuit judges said that Von Saher could proceed with her suit, if she could establish that the regular statute of limitations had not run out.

Von Saher is trying to get the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case of whether California’s Holocaust-related exemption to the statute of limitations is constitutional; her attorney, Lawrence Kaye, said he expects to learn next week whether the Supreme Court will accept the appeal.

Lacking the voided law’s special provisions for art looted during the Holocaust, Von Saher’s claim becomes vulnerable to the Norton Simon Museum’s argument that the regular statute of limitations ran out long before she raised her claim.  She first requested the painting’s return in 2001, and sued in 2007 after mediation efforts failed. The Norton Simon Foundation bought the work in 1971 from a private owner, and has displayed it since the 1970s.

Reached before the governor acted, Kaye declined to comment on the bill and how it might affect Von Saher’s case. Attorneys for the Norton Simon Museum could not be reached.

The law says nothing about art looted during the Holocaust, but simply adds three years to the statute of limitations for suits aimed at forcing museums and dealers to return or pay for allegedly stolen art.  It was proposed and written by the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, which Feuer chairs.

“I have no idea what the bill would do in [the Von Saher] case,” Feuer said Thursday. “The key thing is that people who have claims that works of art have been stolen should have those claims heard on the merits whenever possible, and not have artificial barriers in the way.”

To keep the law from being unfairly skewed against museums and dealers, Feuer said, it specifies that they can still defend themselves under the legal doctrine of “laches,” which holds that a case can be thrown out if the person making the claim waited an unreasonably long time before filing it.

In the case of the looted Cranachs, a trial on the merits would likely involve telling their convoluted 20th century history. A family of Russian nobles owned the paintings until they were seized by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution; Von Saher's father-in-law, Jacques Goudstikker, a leading Dutch-Jewish art dealer,  bought the life-size nudes in 1931 when they were put up for auction in Berlin by Josef Stalin's financially hard-pressed Soviet regime. When Goudstikker fled the German invasion of Holland in 1940, his firm sold the paintings to the Nazis under duress.

After World War II, Goudstikker's family reached a settlement with the Dutch government that left the Cranach paintings in Dutch hands; Von Saher has questioned whether that agreement was valid as far as the “Adam and Eve” diptych is concerned. The Dutch government then transferred ownership to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, who said his forebears were the original Russian owners. Stroganoff-Scherbatoff subsequently sold them to Norton Simon, the Los Angeles industrialist who established the Norton Simon Museum.

-- Mike Boehm

Recent and Related

Jerry Brown asks Supreme Court to take up appeal in Norton Simon case.

Appeals court overturns Holocaust looted-art law, but Norton Simon suit continues

The Norton Simon is batting to keep `Adam' and `Eve'

Norton Simon to keep pair of paintings

Norton Simon sues to retain ownership of German painting

Photo: Lucas Cranach the Elder's "Adam" and "Eve." Credit: Norton Simon Museum.

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