February 15, 2018

An appeal that could have a strong legal significance on Holocaust-era claims in the United States

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 has lasted more than ten years.  The lawsuit against the museum, began with a quest undertaken by 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 lengthy process, Saher, has sought the return of two 500-year-old biblical-themed paintings, 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. 

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 and many others.  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 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, sending more than 800 paintings to Germany.   Some of which were hung in Göring's private collection at Karinhall, his country estate near Berlin.

On Wednesday, February 14, 2018, a 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 heard oral arguments from Von Saher’s attorney, Lawrence Kaye from Herrick Feinstein on the return of the paintings from the Norton Simon Museum.  

In his presentation, Kaye disagreed with U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter's earlier ruling that the Norton Simon Museum is the rightful owner of the paintings on the basis that the Dutch government couldn't assert ownership of artwork it received through external restitution.  In his oral statements he asserted that:

Whatever decision the Appellate court makes in this case will have broad legal ramifications for how forced sale restitution cases are heard in the US Courts.  When the arguments conclude, the judges' panel will either uphold the ruling of the lower court in favor of the Norton Simon Museum,  reverse the earlier decision in favor of von Saher, or send the case back down to the lower court for trial. 

By:  Lynda Albertson