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San Francisco museum opens exhibition from Norton Simon Museum's foe in 'Adam and Eve' dispute

October 28, 2010 |  4:00 pm

CranachAdamEve Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum doesn’t bring in touring exhibitions, but if it did, you can be fairly sure it wouldn’t be tempted to offer the one opening Friday at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

The show, “Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker,” offers more than 40 highlights from the collection that now belongs to Marei von Saher, daughter-in-law of Goudstikker, the prominent Dutch-Jewish art dealer who lost his trove of 1,400 works to the Nazis when they invaded Holland in 1940. The show highlights Von Saher’s successful struggle, starting in 1997 and culminating in 2006, to secure the return of 200 paintings from the Dutch government.

The ones that got away –- in von Saher’s view –- are Lucas Cranach the Elder’s “Adam and Eve” diptych, which has hung in Pasadena since 1977, a highlight of the Norton Simon’s collection with an appraised value of $25 million. Von Saher and the Norton Simon are embroiled in a legal struggle over its ownership; the preliminary court battles have focused on statute of limitations issues. Rulings by the trial judge in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles and by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals have gone against Von Saher, but the U.S. Supreme Court recently indicated it may be interested in taking up her appeal, having asked the United States solicitor general to provide an advisory brief on the federal government’s view of the issues.

JacquesGoudstikker The question is whether a California law extending the statute of limitations for claims to recover Nazi-looted art from museums or art dealers was an unconstitutional attempt by the state to barge in on foreign policy and war policy prerogatives that belong solely to the federal government. That’s what the courts have held so far, although the dissenting judge in the appeals court’s 2-1 ruling against Von Saher said that the state law was not an intrusion into foreign policy, but a legitimate effort to regulate California museums and art dealers by making them answerable to higher than usual legal standards in claims over works that were looted during the Holocaust.

Museum founder Norton Simon bought “Adam and Eve” in 1971 from the heir of a line of Russian nobles. That owner had bought them in 1966 from the Dutch government, having argued that they were his family’s property before the Soviets seized them after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Goudstikker bought them at an auction in 1931 instigated by Josef Stalin to raise cash for his regime.

The Goudstikker exhibition in San Francisco was first seen in 2008 at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., where Von Saher lives; it since has traveled to the Jewish Museum in New York City, the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio and the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla. San Francisco is the tour’s last planned stop.

Nina Sazevich, a spokeswoman for the Contemporary Jewish Museum, said Thursday that the exhibition’s wall texts and audio guide don’t mention Von Saher’s legal duel with the Norton Simon Museum over “Adam and Eve.” But she said that the topic came up in a question-and-answer session Wednesday that was part of a preview for the museum’s donors. The event included presentations by Von Saher, her daughter Charlene von Saher and attorney Lawrence Kaye, who helped them secure the paintings’ return from Holland –- and who is handling her suit against the Norton Simon.

The Von Sahers and Kaye are scheduled to speak again Thursday evening at a preview for museum members. Sazevich said a video of Wednesday's 75-minute-long discussion will be posted on the museum's website.

The Norton Simon Museum had no comment.

-- Mike Boehm


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

Bottom photo: Jacques Goudstikker in his gallery. Credit: Marei von Saher / Contemporary Jewish Museum