Friday 27 June 2014

Ownership of Nazi-looted art at Pasadena Norton Simon Museum disputed

Another post on Art & Artifice on looted art.

This case concerns two sixteenth-century oil paintings looted in 1940 from the collection of a noted Dutch art collector and dealer, Jacques Goudstikker. The two paintings "Adam" and "Eve" by Lucas Cranach the Elder were acquired by the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, California in 1971 and, to date, have regularly been on display.

In May of 2007, Marei von Saher, Jacques Goudstikker's sole heir, filed a complaint in the Federal Court for the Central District of California seeking to recover the paintings.

The history of the two paintings is complicated by multiple lootings and suspicious changes-of-hand.

Before the 20th century, the diptych was in a Kiev Church for more than 400 years, until the Soviets moved the works to the Art museum of the Ukranian Academy of Science. Then, the Soviet government decided to auction the works in Berlin where the Jewish art dealer, Jacques Goudstikker, bought them in 1931.

During World War II, in 1940, Mr Goudstikker fled the Netherlands when Germany invaded and died while crossing the Atlantic to South America. Several hundreds of works in his gallery, including the two Cranach paintings, were later sold in two circumstances: to the German bank Alois Miedl during an auction, and to the Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring at a fraction of their value.

At the end of the World War II, the works were eventually restituted to the Dutch government in 1946 by the Monuments Men.

Goudstikker’s widow filed timely claims with the Dutch government and reached a settlement in 1952. Under that settlement, she received most of the property taken by Alois Miedl, but the agreement did not cover the artworks taken by Göring.

The paintings were then the subject of a claim concerning Goudstikker’s initial acquisition from the Soviet Union. A Mr George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff successfully petitioned the Dutch government to return the paintings to him on the grounds that the Soviet Union had illegally taken the works from his Russian family before Goudstikked bought them. So, in 1966, the Dutch government quietly gifted the work back to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, denying the restitution claims by Goudstikker’s wife. Then, in 1971, the Norton Simon museum acquired the panels from George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff.

Finally, three decades later, Von Saher learned of the paintings whereabouts, and sued the Norton Simon Museum in 2007, after six years of talks failed to resolve the case.

In March 2012, US District Judge John Walter dismissed the case, finding that Von Saher's claims conflicted with US policy on recovered art.

However, on June 6, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the 2012 decision, returning the case to the District Court. 

Now we will have to wait and see whether the transfer to Stroganoff-Scherbatoff will be considered as a Dutch "act of state" that a US court should not disturb or not.

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