A Los Angeles federal judge has dismissed a case that jeopardized the Norton Simon Museum’s ownership of a nearly 500-year-old pair of paintings of Adam and Eve by German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder.
The action halts dueling lawsuits filed by the museum and Marei von Saher of Connecticut, the heir of a Jewish art dealer who lost the artworks to the Nazis in World War II. The museum filed a motion to dismiss the case, and a hearing was to be held Monday. But Judge John F. Walker granted the motion Thursday afternoon. He did not immediately disclose his reasons for doing so.
The museum’s attorney, Luis Li of Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles, declined to comment on the ruling. Von Saher’s attorney, Lawrence M. Kaye of the New York firm Herrick, Feinstein, could not be reached for comment.
Cranach’s monumental paintings of life-size nudes in the Garden of Eden have been a highlight of Simon’s collection since 1971, when the Los Angeles industrialist and collector bought them from George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, an heir of a noble Russian family thought to have lost the paintings to the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. But the Cranachs have a complicated history, at issue in the legal battle.
Von Saher’s Dutch father-in-law, Jacques Goudstikker, bought the paintings in a 1931 auction in Berlin, billed as “Stroganoff Collection Leningrad” and staged to raise funds for Stalin’s impoverished government. “Adam” and “Eve” remained in his gallery in Amsterdam until 1940, when the Nazis took over his business. Goudstikker died in a shipboard accident while fleeing the Germans, but his wife, Desiree, and son, Edward, survived, as did a list of artworks left behind.
After the war, Desiree Goudstikker settled with the Dutch government, regaining part of her husband’s inventory. She did not claim another group of artworks, including the Cranachs, because she would have had to return payment received from the Germans. That settlement made it possible for Stroganoff-Scherbatoff to pursue his claim. The Dutch transferred the paintings to him in 1966.
The matter might have rested there, but as Holocaust restitution escalated, the Dutch reconsidered claims against Nazi loot, and scholars questioned long-accepted accounts of the Cranachs’ Russian history.
There is no doubt that the paintings were sold in the Stroganoff sale, but some researchers think they were among confiscated goods from other collections, included in the auction to give the other items a “noble” provenance and disguise that they actually were being sold by the government.
No evidence that the paintings did or did not belong to the Stroganoffs has been found, but a document has come to light stating that they were in a church and other buildings in Kiev, the capital of what is now Ukraine, a few years before the auction. No one knows how they got there.
Von Saher, the widow of the Goudstikkers’ son, has spent the last nine years trying to retrieve artworks owned by her husband’s parents. Last year, the Dutch government gave her 202 works that had been housed in Dutch museums, stating that the Goudstikker case had been handled properly in legal terms but that it had been reconsidered on moral grounds.
She learned that the Cranachs were at the Simon museum in 2000, and her attorney contacted the museum the following year.
Throughout the lengthy period of mediation and legal proceedings, Von Saher has contended that the Simon cannot have title to the paintings because they are stolen goods. The museum has argued that it is the rightful owner of the Cranachs, whether they belonged to the Stroganoffs or not, because the family’s heir acquired good title to them under Dutch law, and in any event, California’s three-year statute of limitations to challenge the Simon’s purchase has long since passed.
In its motion to dismiss the case, the Simon argued that a California law extending the statute of limitations for heirs of Holocaust victims is unconstitutional because it wrongfully empowers the state to remedy war injuries, which is a duty of the federal government.