Virginia Museum Does What Pasadena Museum Won’t: Gives Back Nazi-Looted Artwork to Heir of Owner

Published : Monday, October 8, 2018 | 5:29 AM

The Board of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art has decided to return this painting to the heir of the art dealer from whom it was seized by Nazis in 1940. Image of detail of "Madonna and Child Enthroned With Saints Nicholas of Tolentino and Sebastian,” thought to be the work of Lorenzo Costa, courtesy of VMFA

In contrast to the decades-long court battle fought by a Pasadena museum with the heir of an art dealer to keep a pair of $24 million, 400-year-old paintings which had been seized by a Nazi leader during World War II, the Virginia Museum of Fine Art Board voted last week to return a valuable painting it had acquired under similar circumstances.

The masterpieces in both cases had been taken in forced sales from Amsterdam art dealer Jacques Goudstikker in 1940 by Hermann Göring, Hitler’s henchman who created the Gestapo, the feared Nazi secret police.

After the war, the recovered paintings were turned over to the Dutch government by Allied forces with the expectation that they would be returned to the Goudstikker family.

That, however, was not to be. The Goudstikker heirs failed to submit a claim for title to the paintings to the Netherlands before the 1951 deadline. The paintings were sold off by the Dutch government.

These paintings will remain in Pasadena at the Norton Simon Museum. Detail of Lucas Cranach the Elder's Eve (circa 1530). Image: Norton Simon Museum

The “Adam” and “Eve” paintings by Lucas Cranach were sold in 1966 to George Stroganoff-Sherbatoff, a former Russian aristocrat and then an American. He eventually sold the pictures to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena in 1971.

“Madonna and Child Enthroned With Saints Nicholas of Tolentino and Sebastian,” thought to be the work of Lorenzo Costa in the mid-1510s, was sold by the Dutch to an unknown collector. In 1958, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond bought it from a New York gallery, and it has been with the museum ever since.

Marei von Saher, Goudstikker’s daughter-in-law, sought to recover the paintings in Pasadena by filing a suit against the Norton Simon Museum in 2007, but in a July decision the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said it cannot overturn “sovereign acts” of the Dutch government.

The court applied the “act of state” doctrine, which states that every sovereign state is bound to respect the independence of every other sovereign state, and the courts will not sit in judgment of another government’s acts done within its own territory.

The court rejected von Saher’s claim and the Norton Simon Museum is keeping the paintings.

By contrast, Virginia Museum of Fine Art voted to return their painting to von Saher.

“For us it’s not even a choice – it’s an obligation,” Museum of Fine Art Director Alex Nyerges told the Washington Post. “A work of art belongs to its owner, and any work that is illegally obtained, in this case stolen by the Nazis, belongs to the original owners.”

Nyerges said the process was long and complicated because they had to verify the history of the work.

The process also involved Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s research being compared with von Saher’s research, until eventually, the Museum was able to determine the painting was “very likely” part of Goudstikker’s collection.

Von Saher, who lives in New York, has resolved claims for more than 50 works of art from at least seven countries and more than a dozen museums in the United States and abroad, her attorney, Frank Lord, told the Washington Post.said.

After the appeals court ruled in July about the twin paintings at Norton Simon, von Saher asked the court in August to rehear the case, indicating her legal battle in Pasadena may not be over.