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


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Jerry Brown, California Atty. Gen. and gubernatorial candidate, has filed a legal brief with the United States Supreme Court that sets him against Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum in its effort to hold onto a nearly 500-year-old pair of paintings of Adam and Eve looted during the Holocaust.

But the issue in the friend-of-the-court brief that Brown filed on behalf of Marei Von Saher isn’t whether the courts should ultimately award her custody of the two paintings that the invading Nazis seized from her father-in-law, a Dutch-Jewish art dealer. It’s the constitutionality of a 2002 California law that would save her from having her case thrown out on the grounds that she failed to file her stolen property claim within the usual three-year statute of limitations.


Last August, the museum won a potentially decisive round in the custody battle when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the state law, which gives special legal status to art works looted by the Nazis during World War II. When such works are held by a museum or art dealer in California, the law gives former owners or their heirs until the end of 2010 to file a claim -- regardless of whether there are statute-of-limitations issues. The Norton Simon has argued that, since the paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder have been well-publicized highlights of its collection since 1976, the regular three-year limitation clock had long expired by the time Von Saher first came forward in 2001.

Last month, Von Saher petitioned the Supreme Court to accept her case and overturn the 9th Circuit’s ruling; Brown is supporting her, in hopes that the Supreme Court will rule the state’s tossed-out Holocaust art law is constitutional, after all.

Splitting 2-to-1, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court found that the law intruded on the federal government’s constitutional role of setting U.S. foreign policy. The brief from Brown says that in passing the law, California “has not injected itself into relations with foreign countries or with former wartime enemies,” but simply was regulating the state’s art dealers and museums in a way that is within its authority, and poses no conflict with existing foreign policy.

Frank Lord, an attorney for Von Saher, said Wednesday that if she loses her bid to have the Supreme Court hear her appeal, she will still be able to move forward with her case -- although that would mean having to parry the museum’s argument that the regular statute of limitations has expired.

If Von Saher overcomes all statute-of-limitations hurdles, the strange, convoluted and ‘Zelig’-like facts of the Cranach paintings’ 20th century history would come into play. They include the Bolsheviks’ alleged theft of the works from Russian nobles during the Russian Revolution; Josef Stalin’s auctioning of the paintings to raise money during the Great Depression; and a settlement after World War II between the government of the Netherlands and the heirs of Von Saher’s father-in-law, Jacques Goudstikker. The deal allowed the Dutch government to keep “Adam and Eve,” which it then transferred to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, heir to an aristocratic family that contended it owned them before the Russian Revolution. In 1971, the Russian heir sold the paintings to museum founder Norton Simon.

Attorneys for the museum have argued in past court filings that Von Saher’s claim should be thrown out because actions by foreign governments, such as the Dutch settlement with Goudstikker’s heirs, typically can’t be overturned by U.S. courts. -- Mike Boehm

Related:Text of Brown’s legal brief filed with U.S. Supreme Court


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