Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve

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Restitution Issue: Norton Simon Museum

Adam and Eve, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in c. 1530, are a pair of panel paintings currently on view in Pasadena, at the Norton Simon Museum.  There hasn’t been an update on the painted pair since October, but the ownership of the Adam and Eve remains an unresolved dispute.  Marei Von Saher is the daughter-in-law of Jacques Goudstikker, a previous owner of the Adam and Eve.  During the 1940s, Goudstikker fled Holland and was forced to sell the panels to the Nazis under duress.  The issue of restitution would seem clear if this case was that simple.  A questionable, century-long provenance and a legal tangle both complicate the case.  Let’s explore.

Adam and Eve have hung at the Norton Simon since 1977.

Norton Simon bought the Cranach panels from George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff , a Russian, in 1971.  Stroganoff-Scherbatoff was the heir of an aristocratic family who claimed to have owned the paintings prior to 1917.  Stroganoff-Scherbatoff received/bought the paintings from the Dutch Government in a restitution agreement in 1966.  The Dutch Government was restituted the paintings (remember Goudstikker fled Holland during WWII) after WWII.  The Nazis forced Goudstikker to sell them in the 1940s.  Goudstikker had bought the paintings from the Soviet government at an auction in 1931.  The Russian government had confiscated Adam and Eve from the family of Stroganoff-Scherbatoff prior to 1917.  Seems like a resolved case of restitution: Russian heir gets stolen paintings back and then sells them to a collector (Norton Simon).

So how does Von Saher come into this?  She believes she has a claim to the works as well, even though she is not a direct heir of Goudstikker (her daughter is).  She believes she has claim to the works despite the fact that a legal resolution was reached between the Dutch Government and Goudstikker’s heirs in the 1950s, prior to the panels being restituted/bought by Stroganoff-Scherbatoff.  (This had been cited as fact in previous LA Times stories, but was cited as a questionable fact in the most recent Times article.)  If a resolution between the Dutch government and Goudstikker’s heirs had been reached, then Von Saher has no claim to the paintings, the issue resolved and all future claims forfeited.  If so, then both instances of unfair confiscation (once from Stroganoff-Scherbatoff’s family and once from Goudstikker) have been redressed, making the Norton Simon’s ownership of Adam and Eve unquestionable.  If this sounds complicated, it is—see below diagram.

And this is just the last 100 years.

Now for the legal complications of Von Saher’s case: Von Saher originally sued the Norton Simon under the 2002 California law, the Holocaust Art-Restitution Law.  This law gave owners and heirs of Nazi-looted artwork until the year 2010 to sue for return of artworks.  Von Saher’s original 2007 case (filed in Los Angeles), was thrown out by the judge because he believed the 2002 Holocaust Art-Restitution Law was unconstitutional: that the law intruded on the federal government’s prerogative (aka not state’s job) to shape policies on war and foreign affairs.  Von Saher then appealed this decision.

At the appeal, in August 2009, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 2007 decision, and struck down the 2002 Holocaust Art-Restitution Law.  However, the Court also ruled that the original case should not have been dismissed completely because Von Saher could still sue under the regular statute of limitations.  The regular statute allowed owners and heirs three years to sue—three years from the date a person knew the whereabouts of a stolen work.

In January 2010, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to rehear Von Saher‘s appeal.  So Von Saher took it to the U.S. Supreme Court in April 2010 (in an attempt to reverse the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling, thereby reinstating the 2002 CA Holocaust Art-Restitution Law.  The U.S. Supreme Court rejected her petition, despite Jerry Brown’s (then CA Attorney General, now CA Governor) encouragement to take Von Saher’s case.

But this wasn’t the end! In September 2010, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed bill AB2765 which put into law an extension to the regular statute of limitations from three to six years.  (The bill did not explicitly address Holocaust victims, but was written in direct response to the repealing of the 2002 CA Holocaust Art-Restitution Law.)  The new law applies to future and pending cases, and means Von Saher has an extra three years to play with – but she should have known about the works waaaaay before then.

Von Saher in front of other restituted works.

Von Saher says she first learned about the Adam and Eve‘s whereabouts in 2000, and first filed in 2001.  But the Norton Simon (and this blogger) doubts Von Saher discovered the panels’ location that late.  It seems unlikely for several reasons.  First, the panels have been on view at the Norton Simon since 1977, and have appeared in numerous publications and news articles even before that. Secondly, Von Saher can’t possibly claim to have been unaware about the location of Goudstrikker family artworks. She has already proved successful in winning back other Nazi artworks; reclaiming them is her personal mission. In February 2006, Von Saher reclaimed 200 artworks from the Dutch government (one of the largest restitutions of Nazi-looted art ever).  The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco even organized a show around the restituted artworks.   It seems implausible Von Saher only found out where the Adam and Eve were in 2000.

The latest news said Von Saher had decided to see if the U.S. Supreme Court would take up the case, in the hope to reinstate the 2002 CA Holocaust Art-Restitution Law.  If not, she can still sue under the regular statute of limitations which was just extended from three to six years by Schwarzenegger.  This means fighting with the Norton Simon over when she could and should have known about Adam and Eve’s whereabouts.  So much legal madness.

So why does Von Saher want the paintings so bad?  I’m sure she has some moral reasons, but more likely is the fact they’re worth a shit ton of money, $24 million (appraised in 2006).  It’s doubtful she wants to hang the paintings in her Connecticut home.  If she got Adam and Eve, how long do you think it would take her to sell them?

Let’s examine a recent related case.  Los Angeles resident Maria Altman won a restitution case against the Austrian government in 2006; she and four other heirs were awarded five paintings by Gustav Klimt including Klimt’s masterpiece Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. (This case is featured prominently in Rape of Europa; watch it streaming on Netflix.)

Golden Portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer (generously) still on view to the public.

The legal complications were less convoluted and the moral issues much clearer in the Altman case.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the case could go forward, and an Austrian mediation panel awarded the paintings to Altman and the other heirs.  The works had a celebrated return to America; LACMA organized an exhibition around them in 2006.  Where are the Klimt paintings now? Did Altman donate them to LACMA, or to another museum? Hell No.  Should she have?—Who knows.  She and the other heirs had a right to reclaim their property and the right to do with the paintings what they wished.  However consider this:  Before the Klimt’s were restituted, they hung in the Austrian National Gallery, a public museum space.  All of the five works returned to Altman were sold into private hands.  Only one of the restituted Klimt painting (the golden Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I) remains on public view, generously loaned for permanent display to the Neue Galerie, in New York, by cosmetics baron Ronald S. Lauder (who purchased it from Altman).  It is no coincidence Von Saher’s is represented by the same legal team who won Altman’s Klimt case.

Other issues aside, consider what would happen if Von Saher was awarded ownership of the Adam and Eve.  (First she’d show them in a museum) then she’d probably sell the panels to the highest bidder, definitely not to a museum (because they sure don’t have the money).  The works would enter private hands and would no longer be enjoyed by the public.

Removal of the works—a greater crime.

I am all for restitution of artworks to heirs of Holocaust victims, but in this case the “victim” seems to be pushing the boundaries of restitution both morally and legally.  Of course my bias is to keep artworks in the public sphere, but the removal of the paintings from the Norton Simon would seem a bigger crime against the public in my eyes.

– H.I.

3 Responses

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  1. Whoever made that research might want to take a look at the Catalog of lost Western Art from the Khanenko Museum in Kiev Ukraine. The paintings belonged to their collection prior to the war. Apparently Stalin used a lot of artwork to get money for his Five Year Plan (not sure which Plan though). He was allowed to do so because of the nationalization of the artworks to the state.
    I read that those paintings, like many other artwork, were given an ‘aristocratic’ provenance to rise the selling price and that they were not part of the Stroganov collection… to verify….

    Genia Boivin

    April 8, 2011 at 4:03 PM

  2. […] in which sought the return from the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, California, of “Adam and Eve,” the diptych in oil by Lucas Cranach the Elder.  The court stated:  The United States and the […]

  3. I agree with one point here – people have a right to dispose of their property however they like, if they are Hearsts, Rockefellers or the heirs of those whose property was looted. Receiving stolen property back doesn’t require one to donate it to a museum. If something is stolen and has been giving pleasure to the public, then the public has been enjoying stolen goods.
    If Ms von Saher actually has a legitimate claim to these paintings and it’s found that she owns them, I would hope she wouldn’t burn them. I’d like if she could make a settlement with the Norton Simon so that I could continue to enjoy them. But she could sell them to anyone – even the Hermitage and let them go back to Russia, and that would have to be fine.
    Certainly, Ms Altman and the other heirs were under no obligation to leave the paintings in Austria. I remember reading at one point that the Gallery had asked her if she’d consider leaving the paintings in the Gallery on extended loan. She replied that they’d been on loan long enough.


    November 14, 2014 at 3:54 PM

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