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Court rules that artworks once possessed by Nazis can stay at Norton Simon Museum

A long-fought legal case over the rightful ownership of artwork once held by Nazi Germany is over — at least for now. This matter involves two beautiful paintings of Adam and Eve, created by German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder in the early 16th Century.

The industrialist and art collector Norton Simon purchased the paintings in 1971, but for the past decade they’ve been at the center of a lawsuit seeking their return by the heirs of a Dutch-Jewish art dealer who gave up possession of  the artworks to the Nazis in the World War II era.

But last week a U.S. District Court ruled that the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is the rightful owner of the paintings. To help us sort out this long and convoluted story is Carolina Miranda. She writes about art and culture for the Los Angeles Times.

Norton Simon bought the painting from a Russian aristocrat. He had laid claim to the Cranach paintings on the basis that they had belonged to his family's collection before the Russian Revolution. Through some turn of events — it's still debated how — they ended up in the possession of the Soviet state. The Soviets expropriated a lot of art. The Soviets then, because they needed money, turned around and sold the paintings to a Dutch art dealer named Jacques Goudstikker in 1931. Nine years later, the Nazis invaded and the paintings ended up in their hands. Then, somehow, the Russian aristocrat later got the painting back from the Dutch and then sold it to Norton Simon. So this painting is very well-traveled. 

The plaintiff in the case, Marei von Saher, is the daughter-in-law of the art dealer Jacques Goudstikker. When Nazis invaded the Netherlands in WWII, Goudstikker's firm was “coerced” into selling the Adam and Eve paintings to the Nazis. For the past 10 years, Von Saher has sought return of the artworks. Miranda says the issue for the court came down to what Goudstikker's firm did after the war.

In the case of these paintings, the restitution laws required that, if the Nazis had bought the works, then the owners of the works needed to return that money [to the Dutch government] in order to receive that property, partially because money had been looted from the Dutch treasury by the Nazis. It's all so circular. What the Goudstikker company [decided] was that it would cost them more money than it was worth to seek the return of the artworks. There was a memo in 1950 that the firm issued stating why they were not going to seek restitution. So the U.S. District Court's decision is based on that, saying this is a case in which a family purposely didn't seek restitution for financial reasons. 

According to Miranda, Von Saher's lawyers said she plans to appeal the case. But, unless a court overturn the ruling, Cranach's Adam and Eve paintings will remain on display at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.