SAN FRANCISCO – A decades-long suit filed by the descendant of a Dutch art gallery owner claiming the descendant is the rightful owner of two Renaissance paintings stolen by the Nazis during World War II recently ended with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals finding that the Dutch government had transferred ownership of the paintings as a sovereign act.
U.S. Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote the July 30 opinion with Judge James Donato concurring and U.S. Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw concurring in a separate opinion. “We presume the validity of the Dutch government’s sensitive policy judgments and avoid embroiling our domestic courts in re-litigating long-resolved matters entangled with foreign affairs,” the appeals court opinion said.
In the 1990s, Marei von Saher, the only living descendant of Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, sought restitution for two paintings stolen from the Goudstikker firm by the Nazis during their invasion of the Netherlands. The paintings, “Adam” and “Eve” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, were originally purchased by Goudstikker in Germany. After the war, Goudstikker’s widow, Desi, waived rights to restitution of the paintings and the original owner, George Stroganoff-Sherbatoff (Stroganoff), claimed they had been stolen from him by the Soviet Union. The Dutch agreed to sell the Cranachs to Stroganoff, who later sold them to the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena in 1971.
A Dutch court denied von Saher’s petition, finding that the matter had been settled, but a few years later the Dutch returned all of Goudstikker’s paintings still in the Dutch government’s possession to von Saher, except the Cranachs, which were in the Pasadena museum.
In 2007, von Saher filed a petition against the museum in U.S. District Court for Central District of California, which held that the California statute von Saher relied on that allowed owners of artwork confiscated by the Nazis to recover the art from museums was unconstitutional “on field pre-emption grounds as the state was attempting to engage in foreign affairs.”
The district court granted judgment to the museum in 2014, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision and remanded for further factual development, holding that von Saher’s claims were not in conflict with the federal policy regarding artwork stolen by the Nazis.
A dissenting opinion stated that the paintings had already been subject to restitution proceedings and U.S. courts should respect that finality. Von Saher’s “attempt to recover the Cranachs in U.S. courts directly thwarts the central objective of U.S. foreign policy in this area,” court documents said.
After a year of discovery, the district court again concluded that the Dutch government had the right to sell the paintings to Stroganoff.
Affirming that district court decision, the appeals court noted that they declined to reach “into the Dutch government’s post-war restitution system” which would require “making sensitive political judgments that would undermine international comity.”
The appeals court stated that the von Saher family waived its right to restitution by not timely filing a claim, making the sale to Stroganoff valid and not in violation of any international law.
“Without question, the Nazi plunder of artwork was a moral atrocity,” McKeown stated, noting that the Dutch government “thrice settled” the issue. “We decline the invitation to invalidate the official actions of the Netherlands.”
In her concurring opinion, Judge Wardlaw stated that the case should not have continued after the district court correctly dismissed the case in 2014. “Here we are in 2018, over a decade from the date vn Saher filed her federal action, reaching an issue we need not have reached, to finally decide that the Cranachs, which have hung in the Norton Simon Museum nearly 50 years, may remain there.”
9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case number 16-56308