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Norton Simon Museum wins fight to keep two masterpieces looted by Nazis

Norton Simon Museum wins fight to keep two masterpieces looted by Nazis
"Adam" and Eve" paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder around 1530. (Associated Press)

The Norton Simon Museum will keep two Renaissance masterpieces looted by the Nazis during World War II under a unanimous decision Monday by a federal appeals court.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Pasadena museum in a battle with an heir to a Dutch Jewish gallery owner who left the paintings behind when he and his family fled the Nazis.

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Jacques Goudstikker, the gallery owner, had purchased the paintings “Adam” and “Eve” by Lucas Cranach the Elder from the Soviet Union in 1931 at an auction in Berlin.

As the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Goudstikker and his family fled to South America, leaving behind his gallery of more than 1,200 artworks. Goudstikker died aboard ship after a fall.

His wife, Desi, kept a black book listing all the paintings in the gallery, including the Cranachs.

Hitler deputy Hermann Goering and cohort Alois Miedl later forced a remaining employee of the gallery to transfer them the assets “through a series of involuntary written agreements,” the 9th Circuit said.

The allied forces returned the paintings to the Dutch government after the war, and the Netherlands established a claims process for people to recoup property stolen by the Nazis.

The family of Goudstikker, the gallery owner, decided on the advice of a lawyer not to reclaim the masterpieces for business reasons, the 9th Circuit said. The family did file claims for other artworks and for real estate and settled them with the Dutch.

The Dutch government then sold the paintings in 1966 to George Stroganoff-Sherbatoff. He later sold the paintings to the Norton Simon Museum, which has displayed them for nearly 50 years.

Marei von Saher — described by the court as the only living heir of Desi Goudstikker — tried to get the paintings back in the 1990s. She eventually recovered 200 paintings still in the possession of the Dutch, but the government turned down her requests for the Cranachs.

The government said her family had decided previously not to try to recover the Cranachs and had informed the government of that decision in writing.

Von Saher then sued in federal court in Los Angeles. The district court eventually considered evidence in the case but ruled for the museum, saying the Dutch state validly owned the paintings when it sold them.

The 9th Circuit agreed that the case should end in favor of the museum.

“The Dutch government acted with authority to convey the paintings after von Saher’s predecessors failed to file a claim,” Judge M. Margaret McKeown, a Clinton appointee, wrote for the panel.

She said the court was avoiding “embroiling our domestic courts in re-litigating long-resolved matters entangled with foreign affairs.”

The 9th Circuit applied “the act of state doctrine,” which requires actions taken by foreign sovereigns within their jurisdictions to be deemed valid.

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“Without question,” McKeown wrote, “the Nazi plunder of artwork was a moral atrocity that compels an appropriate governmental response. But the record ... reveals an official conveyance from the Dutch government.”

Von Saher may ask a larger panel of the 9th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider her case.

Lawrence M. Kaye, her lawyer, said she has not decided whether to appeal.

“Mrs. von Saher is disappointed by the decision, and she is considering her next step in her long, frustrating battle to achieve justice in this case,” Kaye said.

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