The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled on a claim over these two 500 year-old works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve. As I wrote back in 2008, this case presents some interesting issues of timeliness. It grapples with the question of whether states may enact more beneficial limitations restrictions, allowing certain claimants to bring actions. The claimant, Marei Von Saher is the successor in interest to Jacques Goudstikker who bought the works in a 1931 auction in Berlin. The works remained there in Amsterdam until 1940 when the Nazis instituted a forced sale.
After the war, Desiree Goudstikker reached a settlement with the Dutch government. She received some of her husband’s inventory, but did not claim another set of works because that would have meant returning the purchase price received from the Germans.
The Dutch government transferred these Cranachs to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, the descendant of a noble Russian family who was thought to have lost the paintings to the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. Stroganoff-Scherbatoff sold these works to the Norton Simon Museum in 1971. The 9th Circuit held first that California’s special limitations rule for works looted during the Holocauset era, Sec. 354.3 conflicts with the foreign affairs doctrine. Though it does not conflict with Executive Branch policy via the President, it does conflict with a power reserved to the Federal government, as California created a “world-wide forum for the resolution of Holocaust restitution claims”.
As a consequence, the claim was left to general limitations principles. In California the Discovery Rule applies. A claimant must bring her action within three years of discovering her claim. This means actual discovery, but also when a reasonably prudent claimant should have discovered she had a claim. Given that the museum acquired the work in 1971, this will surely make victory a difficult proposition.
- Von Saher v. Norton Simon Museum of Art at Pasadena, — F. 3d —, 2010 WL 114959 (9th Cir. 2010).
- Mike Boehm, Woman seeking return of looted art from Norton Simon Museum loses appeal – latimes.com, L.A. Times, January 16, 2010.
- Orkin v. Taylor