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August 1, 2018

Sad Conclusion: The case is von Saher v Norton Simon Museum of Art at Pasadena et al, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-58308.

The protracted multi-million dollar lawsuit regarding the 480-year-old paintings of Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder at the Norton Simon Museum that has lasted more than ten years has now come to a close.  A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a unanimous decision, has ruled in favour of the museum and not Marei von Saher, the sole surviving heir of the Dutch-Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, who has long sought to recover her father in law’s artworks, looted during the Second World War. 

Throughout this protracted judicial process, Saher, had sought the return of the two 500-year-old biblical-themed paintings, which at one point had been appraised at $24 million.  

Jacques Goudstikker was once considered to be the preeminent dealer of Old Master paintings in Amsterdam and is estimated to have amassed an extraordinary collection of some 1400 works of art of the course of his professional career.  When Germany began its assault on Holland on May 10, 1940, Goudstikker knew that his family's time was up. As Rotterdam burned and the Nazi invasion under Reichsmarschall Göring gained speed, Goudstikker, his young wife Désirée von Halban Kurtz, and their infant son Edo boarded the SS Bodegraven, a ship docked at the port city of IJmuiden, departing for England and then on its way to the Americas. 

Goudstikker inventory of property

Unable to transport his collection with him, Goudstikker carried a neatly typed inventory of his property in a black leather notebook.  This notebook detailed artworks by important Dutch and Flemish artists like Jan Mostaert and Jan Steen, as well as works by Peter Paul Rubens, Giotto, Pasqualino Veneziano, Titian, Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh as well as the Cranachs.  Unfortunately, in a further tragic twist of fate, Goudstikker lost his life on his journey to safety, breaking his neck in an accidental fall through an uncovered hatch just two days into the departing ship's voyage.

In less than a week after the German Luftwaffe of the Third Reich crossed into Dutch airspace, Dutch commanding general General Henry G. Winkelman surrendered and the country fell under German occupation.   As a result, Amsterdam came under a civilian administration overseen by the Reichskommissariat Niederlande, which was dominated by the Schutzstaffel.  

Goudstikker's collection was quickly liquidated in a forced sale typical of many World War II -era art thefts.  Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring himself cherry picked many of the choicest art works, including these two 6-1/4 foot (1.9 meters) tall Cranach panels. Göring went on to send more than 800 paintings to Germany, some of which were hung in his private collection at Karinhall, his country estate near Berlin.

On Monday, July 30, 2018, the three-judge panel with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which is the U.S. Federal court with appellate jurisdiction over the district courts in Alaska, Arizona and the Central District of California applied “the act of state doctrine,” validated the 1966 sale of the paintings by the Dutch government, which by then owned them, to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff who in turn sold them to the Norton Simon in 1971.

“The act of state doctrine,” limits the ability of U.S. courts, in certain instances, from determining the legality of the acts of a sovereign state within that sovereign's own territory and is often applied in appropriations disputes which immunizes foreign nations from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts when certain conditions are satisfied.

The judges held that in order for von Saher’s claim to have been upheld, the  court would have been required to invalidate the official acts of the Dutch government. Specifically, the Dutch government’s conveyance of the paintings to Stroganoff-Scherbatoff would have needed to have been deemed legally inoperative.  Additionally the panel would have needed to disregard both the Dutch government’s 1999 decision not to restore von Saher’s rights to the paintings, and its later statement that her claim to the paintings had “been settled.”

To view the Judges' opinion entirety, please download the file from the ARCA website here.

By:  Lynda Albertson