Supreme Court won’t hear looted-art claim against Norton Simon


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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday decided not to take up an appeal from Marei Von Saher, who is trying to wrest a prized, 480-year-old “Adam and Eve” diptych by Lucas Cranach the Elder from the Norton Simon Museum, where the paintings have hung since the 1970s.

“We will continue to fight … until justice is achieved,” Von Saher said in a statement issued Monday by her attorney, Lawrence Kaye.


The Connecticut resident had hoped the Supreme Court would clear a procedural roadblock as she tried to prove that the paintings -- looted from her father-in-law, the noted Dutch-Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, when he fled the Nazi invasion of Holland in 1940 -- should return to his family because they never received proper recompense.

The Norton Simon’s position is that “Adam and Eve” were included in a settlement the heirs agreed to with the Dutch government in 1952 -- and that Von Saher, who sued in 2007, waited far too long to file a claim, the statute of limitations having long run out.

It’s the statute of limitations issue that the Supreme Court declined to hear.

A California state law adopted in 2002 threw out the statute of limitations for claims seeking to recover artworks looted during the Holocaust, if they were held by museums or dealers in the state. The law would have cleared the way for Von Saher to bring evidence that the Dutch government’s 1966 sale of the paintings to an heir of Russian nobles and his 1971 sale of “Adam and Eve” to museum founder Norton Simon were both illegal.

But the trial judge in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles ruled that the California law was an unconstitutional intrusion on the federal government’s authority to set foreign policy and war policy, and he was upheld in 2009 by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 9th Circuit’s finding “veered into dangerous new territory,” according to a brief that then-Attorney General Jerry Brown filed last year with the U.S. Supreme Court, supporting Von Saher’s request that it take up her case. But the U.S. Solicitor General’s office, which represents the federal government before the Supreme Court, disagreed in a brief filed last month, arguing that the 9th Circuit’s ruling was constitutionally correct and there was no reason for the court to review it.

Kaye said Monday that he has filed a motion asking the 9th Circuit judges to revisit their decision in light of developments in a parallel case concerning a similar state law that waives the statute of limitations for legal claims stemming from the Armenian genocide.


After declaring that law unconstitutional for the same reasons it had cited in Von Saher’s case, the 9th Circuit reversed itself in December, ruling that federal law did not prohibit California from passing laws relating to the Armenian genocide, and that there was in fact no conflict with federal foreign policy prerogatives. Despite their ruling against Von Saher on constitutional grounds, the 9th Circuit judges reversed the trial judge’s outright dismissal of her claim -- which means her case remains alive. They found that “it is not clear that the statute of limitations has expired,” and that the issue needed to be explored further before the original trial judge. Since then, another state law has gone into effect, extending the statute of limitations from three years to six for claims to recover significant artworks and scientific and cultural artifacts that belong to California museums and dealers, but are alleged to have been stolen between 1910 and 2010.


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

-- Mike Boehm