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Judge Rules in Favor of California Museum, Ending Legal Battle over Nazi-Looted Art

An eleven-year ownership dispute over two large-scale paintings, Adam and Eve by the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, may be finally coming to an end. The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has dismissed a claim made by the descendant of a Dutch art dealer and ruled that the two Renaissance works will remain in the collection of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the sixteenth-century works were purchased by the Jewish, Amsterdam-based collector and dealer Jacques Goudstikker, who was forced to sell the works, along with 1,200 other pieces from his collection, when he and his family fled the Netherlands in 1940. They were acquired by Nazi leader Hermann Göring and recovered by the Allies at his estate years later.

Since the Goudstikker heirs failed to submit a claim in the Netherlands when the Dutch government invited restitution claims for Nazi-looted art after the war, the paintings were sold to former Russian aristocrat George Stroganoff-Sherbatoff. The Norton Simon Museum purchased the works from Stroganoff-Sherbatoff for $800,000 in 1971. Today, their worth is estimated at $24 million.

Goudstikker’s daughter-in-law, Marei von Saher, who lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, had attempted to recover the works by filing a lawsuit in the Netherlands in the 1990s, but the Dutch courts ruled that the family gave up their rights to the paintings when they failed to submit a claim by 1951. However, the government did allow the heirs to recover more than two hundred other pieces that were still in the government’s possession.

Then von Saher decided to try to retrieve the works by suing the Norton Simon Museum. The lawsuit argued that the museum had acquired the Cranach paintings unlawfully since Stroganoff-Sherbatoff was not their rightful owner. The Court of Appeals ultimately upheld an earlier ruling that sided with the museum and issued a judgment that read: “Second-guessing the Dutch government would violate our commitment to respect the finality of appropriate actions taken by foreign nations to facilitate the internal restitution of plundered art.”

Commenting on the outcome of the case, the Norton Simon Art Foundation said that the ruling “should finally put this matter to rest, and we look forward to continuing to make these important artworks accessible to the public, as we have since 1971.”