California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. has joined a lawsuit to force the Norton Simon Museum to return two 500-year-old paintings to the heir of a Dutch Jewish art dealer.
At stake are “Adam and Eve,” painted on two wooden panels by 16th century German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder. They were looted by the Nazis, then displayed in the home of Hermann Goering, Hitler’s air force chief, and purchased some 40 years ago by the Pasadena museum.
Plaintiff in the case is Marei von Saher, daughter-in-law of art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, demanding the return of the paintings, appraised last year at $24 million.
Brown joined the dispute this week by filing a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, in support of von Saher’s petition to have the case heard by the highest court.
Von Saher, who is not Jewish, lives in Greenwich, Conn., and to the layperson it may appear odd for the California attorney general to side with a nonresident against a California institution. But the underlying legal implications are more complex, explained Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, an international authority on looted art, who is serving as local counsel to the New York law firm representing von Saher.
In contention is a California law that extends to the end of 2010 the statute of limitations for heirs of Holocaust victims to file for restitution.
The law was declared unconstitutional by a federal appeals court because it infringed on the U.S. government’s exclusive right to deal with foreign policy matters.
In filing the brief in the von Saher case, Brown argues that the California law is valid because it does not affect foreign policy but rather rests on the state’s right to regulate museums and galleries.
The Norton Simon Museum is contesting von Saher’s claims and in a lengthy statement traced the provenance of the two paintings through ownership by the governments of the Soviet Union, Germany and the Netherlands to a Russian-American family, which sold them to the museum in the early 1970s.
The statement concludes by declaring that “the Norton Simon Art Foundation is confident that it holds complete and proper title to ‘Adam and Eve.’ ”