Woman seeking return of looted art from Norton Simon Museum loses appeal

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused Thursday to rehear an appeal by a Connecticut woman seeking the return of two of the Norton Simon Museum’s most prized holdings.

Marei Von Saher, who is trying to win the nearly 500-year-old paintings of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by the German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder, had sought a rehearing before all of the court’s judges.

The ruling could mean that barring a successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, families whose art was stolen during the Holocaust and now is owned by a California museum or gallery have lost their right to circumvent the usual three-year statute of limitations in suing for its recovery.

Last August, an appeals court panel ruled, 2 to 1, that California’s Holocaust art restitution law was an unconstitutional intrusion on the federal government’s prerogative to wage war and set foreign policy.

Appellate judges Dorothy W. Nelson and David R. Thompson overturned the law, which had canceled the statute of limitations for Holocaust claims brought by Dec. 31, 2010; in dissent, judge Harry Pregerson wrote that he saw no conflict with foreign policy prerogatives, and that California should be able to regulate its art dealers and museums.

Von Saher, whose art-dealer father-in-law left behind the Cranach paintings when he fled Holland as the Germans invaded 70 years ago, can pursue her case against the museum, but unless she can successfully appeal Thursday’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, she’ll have to convince a trial judge in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles that her suit meets the statute of limitations.

Von Saher’s attorney, Lawrence M. Kaye, said that she hasn’t decided whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Von Saher’s father-in-law died soon after fleeing the Nazis; his firm sold the panels to the Nazis under duress. After World War II, his heirs reached a settlement with the Dutch government allowing it to keep the paintings.

The Dutch then transferred ownership to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, who said they had belonged to his family of Russian nobles. In 1971, he sold them to Norton Simon.

The paintings were valued at $24 million in 2006, when the museum had them appraised. It has said it owns them legitimately and will “defend vigorously” its right to keep them.