What is their true genesis?

She is a beguiling Eve with a profusion of corkscrew curls and an earful of bad advice from a wily serpent. He is a befuddled Adam who holds forbidden fruit in one hand and scratches his head with the other. Life-size and all- but-nude, they have been standing under the biblical Tree of Knowledge -- on the brink of original sin -- since German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder painted them nearly 500 years ago. And they are a big reason art lovers go to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

"They are the high point of 16th century German painting in Los Angeles," said Scott Schaefer, curator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum. "Cranach is incredibly rare, especially in that condition, quality and scale. Those are two of the most magnificent examples in American collections."

But a legal battle has threatened to remove the paintings, valued at $24 million, from the museum. In 2007, after years of unsuccessful mediation, the Simon and Marei von Saher of Connecticut, heir of a Jewish art dealer from whom the Cranachs were taken by the Nazis, filed dueling lawsuits in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Judge John F. Walter dismissed the case, but it was revived Wednesday.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld Walter's determination that a California law extending the statute of limitations for Holocaust art restitution impinged on federal powers but allowed Von Saher's case to proceed if she can convince Walter that she has met the state's regular statute of limitations, giving a victim three years to sue after discovering an ownership claim.

Cranach's oil-on-wood paintings fuse innocence and seduction in one of his favorite themes, the Temptation in the Garden of Eden. The court painter to Frederick the Wise of Saxony and his successors, the artist probably created the diptych for the pleasure of Saxon nobility. But it has brought pain to its owners.

Twice confiscated from private collections -- by Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution and Nazis in World War II -- "Adam" and "Eve" were sold to L.A. industrialist Norton Simon in 1971 by George Stroganoff Scherbatoff, heir of the Russian family that may or may not have lost them to the Bolsheviks. But the story is complicated by conflicting accounts of the paintings' Russian history, financial transactions and vagaries of events that took place in other countries a long time ago.

As told in the Simon Museum's files, the saga begins with the Stroganoffs, one of the wealthiest and most powerful noble families in pre-revolution Russia. Count Alexander Stroganoff, a member of the court of Catherine the Great, founded the family's art collection and in 1764 built a palace for it in St. Petersburg. The family lost its property in 1917, when the last Count Stroganoff fled.

The artworks were transferred to the Soviet state, dispersed to museums and later sold to raise funds for Stalin's impoverished government. In 1931, 256 artworks -- including the two by Cranach -- were consigned to a controversial auction in Berlin billed as "Stroganoff Collection Leningrad."

One of the buyers was Jacques Goudstikker, a prominent Dutch art dealer. He bought the pair for $11,186 and took them to his gallery in Amsterdam, where they remained until 1940, when he was forced out of business by the Nazis. Hermann Goering, Hitler's second-in-command, purchased the contents of Goudstikker's gallery for 2 million guilders, and German banker Alois Miedl bought the real estate for 550,000 guilders. Goering later sold part of the collection to Miedl but kept the Cranachs. After the war, "Adam" and "Eve" and other remains of Goudstikker's inventory were returned to the Dutch government.

Goudstikker died in a fall on a boat while fleeing the Germans. But his wife, Desiree, and son, Edward, survived, as did a record of artworks left behind. Desiree, who moved to the United States after the war, eventually settled her claim with the Dutch government. She received about 330 works from the Miedl firm but did not get works taken by Goering, partly because she would have had to return payment received for them.

Then came Stroganoff Scherbatoff. The nephew of the last Count Stroganoff, he immigrated to America and rose to the rank of commander in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Tipped off by military friends that Nazi loot included objects from his family's collection, he petitioned to recover several works and in 1966 received title to the Cranachs.

Five years later, Stroganoff Scherbatoff sold the paintings to Simon for $800,000. The proud new owner introduced his acquisition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1971 and the Princeton University Art Museum in 1972.

The "Adam" and "Eve" pair has been a fixture in Pasadena for decades. But as Holocaust restitution research has escalated, a sketchy alternate version of their history has emerged. Unearthed documents indicate that the Cranachs were hidden in several locations in Kiev from 1919 to 1929, when they were sent to Leningrad in preparation for the Berlin auction.

No one disputes that the paintings were sold in the Stroganoff auction. But a case study in the American Assn. of Museums' Guide to Provenance Research concludes that the Cranachs were among works from various sources added to the sale to give them a "noble" provenance and disguise the fact that they were actually being sold by the government.

There is no evidence that the Cranachs belonged to the Stroganoffs, said Amy Walsh, curator of Dutch and Flemish paintings and head of provenance research at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and one of three authors of the AAM guide. But many questions remain about the ownership of the paintings.

Von Saher, the widow of the Goudstikkers' son, knew little of his family's history until 1997, when a journalist informed her that the Dutch government was reconsidering claims against Nazi loot. She filed a claim for 267 artworks and in February 2006 received 202 works that had been housed in Dutch museums. Government officials said that the Goudstikker affair had been handled properly in legal terms and that Von Saher got the paintings on moral grounds.

Von Saher consigned about 170 of the artworks to auctions in 2007 and sold others privately, reportedly reaping about $25 million. One of the works, a 17th century landscape by French artist Claude Lorrain, landed in the collection of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Time will tell whether "Adam" and "Eve" will remain on public view in Pasadena or go to Von Saher, who would be free to sell them to the highest bidder.

Legal documents state that she discovered the whereabouts of the Cranachs in November 2000. Her attorney contacted the Simon about her claim the following year, well within the three-year requirement. But the museum maintains that it is the rightful owner of the paintings -- whether or not they belonged to the Stroganoffs -- because Stroganoff Scherbatoff acquired clear title to them under Dutch law and because the artworks were in the public eye 30 years before Von Saher made her claim.

suzanne.muchnic

@latimes.com

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