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After Decade-Long Court Proceedings, Judge Rules Norton Simon Museum is Legal Owner of Pair of $24 Million Masterpieces

Published on Wednesday, August 17, 2016 | 6:15 pm
Detail of Lucas Cranach the Elder's Eve (circa 1530). Image: Norton Simon Museum

A U.S. District Court judge ruled this week that Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum legally owns Lucas Cranach’s “Adam and Eve,” a pair of masterpieces painted around 1530, when he dismissed the claim by an heir to a former owner in a case that has dragged on for a decade.

Judge John Walter ruled the heir’s family and the firm that handled the family’s post-World War II affairs had invalidated their rights of ownership for failing to meet mandated deadlines for filing an ownership claim to the pictures.

Marei von Saher, the heir who sued the Norton Simon Museum to get the pictures, will file an appeal to the judge’s decision, her lawyer said.
The Norton Simon Art Foundation, which oversees the museum’s collection, said it was happy with Judge Walter’s ruling.

“The Court’s decision is based on the merits, considering the facts and law at the heart of the dispute,” the foundation said in a statement. “The Norton Simon takes seriously the fiduciary responsibility to the public that our ownership of such important artworks confers. We have placed the panels on near-constant public display since 1971 and will continue to ensure they remain accessible to the public for years to come.”

“Adam and Eve,” which compose a diptych, were most recently appraised in 2006 for $24 million together.

Von Saher’s case was filed in May 2007 in the Federal Court for the Central District of California, making a path all the way to the U. Supreme Court, where the nation’s highest court in January 2015 refused to review a legal ruling.

Goustikker reportedly bought “Adam and Eve,” known as the Cranach paintings, at a 1931 auction in Berlin of works “from the Stroganoff Collection” supplied by the Soviet government. The paintings fell into the hands of the Nazis when Goustikker fled the Netherlands after the 1940 German invasion, winding up in the possession of Nazi leader Hermann Göring.

Following World War II, Allied forces returned the works to the Dutch government. Von Saher claims that when her mother-in-law, Jacques Goustikker’s wife Desi, went to claim the paintings in the 1950s, the Netherlands effectively slammed the legal door in her face, but that she never gave up the right to bring a claim against authorities for the art.

Dutch authorities transferred the paintings to George Stroganoff, who alleged in 1961 that the Soviet government had seized “Adam and Eve” from his family in the 1920s. The paintings were auctioned with permission from the Soviet authorities, and Goustikker was the highest bidder at that 1931 auction.

Von Saher’s lawyer, Larry Kaye, told The Art Newspaper, “Over the many years that she has sought justice for the theft of Jacques Goudstikker’s property by the Nazis, Ms. Von Saher has been gratified by her many successes, especially when those in possession of her artworks have done the right thing and returned the works to her without her having to resort to litigation,” he wrote. In 2006, the Dutch government returned 202 paintings from Goudstikker’s collection to Von Saher.

The duo of paintings have been on display in the museum since 1971, when industrialist and art collector Norton Simon bought them from exiled Russian aristocrat George Stroganoff.


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