Thursday, May 3, 2007
Norton Simon, Woman File Dueling Suits Over Nazi-Looted Art
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The foundation for Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum and a Connecticut woman have sued each other over ownership of a 500-year-old pair of art masterpieces that were seized by Soviet authorities and later by Nazis.
The Norton Simon Art Foundation and Marei Von Saher filed suit within two hours of each other Tuesday, following the collapse of mediation over Von Saher’s claim that she is the rightful owner of Adam and Eve, a diptych painted by famed German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder in the 16th Century.
Von Saher’s late husband, Eduard “Edo” Von Saher, was the son of Jacques Goudstikker, a Dutch Jew who was one of Europe’s leading art dealers in the years leading up to World War II. Goudstikker fled Holland when the Nazis invaded in 1940, but was killed in an accidental fall aboard ship.
His widow, Desiree Goudstikker, and their son eventually came to the United States and became citizens, having left behind their gallery; hundreds of art works, many of them by famous painters; and valuable real estate. Young Edo Goodstikker became Edo Von Saher after his mother remarried.
The parties agree that Jacques Goudstikker purchased the wood panels at an auction in Berlin in the 1930s. But while Von Saher claims that her father-in-law acquired good title from the Soviet government, the foundation charges that he knew that Cranach’s work had been wrongfully expropriated from the wealthy and powerful Stroganoff family after it fled the Russian Revolution.
The foundation says museum benefactor Norton Simon lawfully acquired the panels for $800,000 from Commander George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, who renounced his hereditary title, became a U.S. citizen, and served in the Navy during World War II. Von Saher claims that the diptych, which has been exhibited at the museum for more than 30 years, was never part of the Stroganoff collection.
The Goudstikker properties were seized by the Nazis, and much of the artwork, including the diptych, wound up in the personal collection of Hitler’s second-in-command, Herman Goering. Along with other confiscated property discovered by the U.S. Army at the end of the war, the artwork was sent to a central collection point in Munich and was later turned over to the Dutch government.
Complicating the dispute are Nazi-era documents reflecting two transactions with respect to the Goudstikker assets. In one arrangement, Goering personally acquired the Goudstikkers’ artworks and moveable property; in the other, an associate of the reichsmarschall, Alois Meidl, acquired the gallery itself, along with real estate belonging to the Goudstikkers.
Those transactions, the parties agree, were entered into by persons who had come into possession of the Goudstikker assets—apparently employees—without the actual consent of any member of the family.
The foundation argues that under a 1952 settlement agreement, Meidl’s firm agreed to return real estate and other properties to the Goudstikkers for something less than the contract price, to void the original contract, and to stop doing business under the Goudstikker name.
The foundation further argues, citing memoranda by a lawyer for the Goudstikkers, that a tactical decision was made not to attack the validity of the Goering transaction. This was done, in part, because the family, in settling with the Meidl firm, recovered most of the amount that had been made by Goering and Meidl and, under Dutch law, would have had to return that money if it recovered the artwork.
That would have undermined the Goudstikkers’ liquidity, the foundation says, adding that much of the artwork had depreciated in value over the years.
Von Saher recovered about 200 other paintings and artifacts from the Dutch government last year that are valued at tens of millions of dollars.
The Simon foundation acknowledged the Dutch government’s new “moral” approach to determining ownership of looted artwork that remained in its possession. But it contends that both Dutch and American law require that Desiree Goudstikker’s decision not to challenge the Goering transaction, and the Dutch government’s 1960s decision to honor the Stroganoff claim to the Cranach work, be treated as dispositive of the present dispute.
“We believe firmly we have good title” to the diptych, which was valued at $24 million last year in an insurance appraisal, Walter Timoshuk, president of the Pasadena-based museum, told The Associated Press. In its complaint, the foundation cites rulings of Dutch and European Union courts, the act-of-state doctrine, the doctrines of laches and adverse possession, and the statute of limitations.
Von Saher seeks a declaration of her rights to the paintings, or damages in the amount of $45 million, which she contends should be trebled under a statute dealing with possession of stolen property.
Lead counsel for Von Saher is Lawrence M. Kaye of New York City, assisted locally by Donald Burris and E. Randol Schoenberg, who have handled several other looted-art cases. The Norton Simon entities are represented by Ronald L. Olson and others from the firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson.
The cases are Norton Simon Art Foundation v. Von Saher, CV-07-2850, and Von Saher v. Norton Simon Museum of Art at Pasadena, CV-07-2866.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company