Defending the Right to Seek Return of Artworks Stolen by Nazis

Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. has filed a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a Connecticut woman who seeks the return of a pair of 500-year-old paintings looted by the Nazis during World War II, kept for a time in the estate of Nazi leader Hermann Göring and purchased 40 years ago by the Norton Simon Museum of Art.

Brown’s friend of the court brief backs Marei Von Saher, who is suing the Pasadena museum over “Adam and Eve.” The two panels painted by the 16th century German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder are evocative of original sin, according to the museum’s website.

The works were confiscated by Nazi soldiers from an Amsterdam gallery owned by a relative of Von Saher’s during the war. From there, the panels were moved to Göring’s country estate near Berlin until May 1945, when they were discovered by American troops. The following year, they were returned to Amsterdam. From there, the artwork’s trail grows murkier, leading through Russia and to a sale in 1971 to the Norton Simon Museum, where the panels are on display on the main floor. The paintings were appraised last year at $24 million. A depiction similar to the “Eve” panel appears each week at the beginning of the TV show “Desperate Housewives.”

“It is only right that California be allowed to give victims additional time to untangle the historical record in cases linked to the darkest chapter in European history,” Brown said. “Despite the passage of so many years, justice will be served by finally permitting this matter to be heard in a court of law.”

At the end of World War II, American forces discovered hundreds of thousands of Nazi-looted artworks stashed in castles, banks, salt mines and caves. Most of those treasures were returned to their rightful owners following the war, but other precious works stolen by the Nazis eluded efforts to track them down. In recent years, a number of prominent museums have discovered their collections include art stolen during the war.

Brown’s amicus brief, submitted in support of Von Saher’s petition for a hearing before the Supreme Court, argues that California has the right to extend the statute of limitations for filing Nazi-era claims beyond the usual three-year limit. Last year, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the state extension would interfere with the federal government’s power to conduct foreign policy.

But, Brown argues, there is no conflict between federal authority and the state’s regulation of museums and galleries within its jurisdiction. That is “a traditional state responsibility,” Brown said. Von Saher’s claim doesn’t seek to “redress the wartime wrongs of foreign governments,” he said. It is made against a museum that no one alleges has any ties to “the Holocaust, the Nazi regime, or the conduct of World War II.”

A copy of the brief is attached. Images of the two paintings can be found at: http://www.nortonsimon.org/collections/browse_artist.php?name=Cranach%2C+Lucas%2C+the+Elder.

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