(CN) - An heir's long quest for the return of two 16th century paintings stolen from her father-in-law by Nazi Reichsmarschall Herman Göring does not conflict with federal policy, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday.
Marei Von Saher has been working for seven years to force Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum of Art to return two life-size panels of Adam and Eve painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1530. She claims they were looted from her late husband's father, Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, during World War II.
The panels once hung in Göring's country house outside of Berlin.
Goudstikker, who was Jewish, escaped the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands only to die a short time later when he fell from a ship on his way to South America. He left behind a black notebook that listed the contents of his art collection, including the Cranach panels.
The panels had hung for some 400 years in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Kiev, Ukraine, until they were moved to the Art Museum at the Ukrainian Academy of Science in Kiev under the Soviet Union. The Soviets put them and other state-owned art up for auction in 1931, eventually falling into Goudstikker's hands.
Further complicating their provenance, the panels may have been seized by Soviet authorities from the Stroganoff family collection in Russia before being sold at auction to Goudstikker.
The Dutch government, after suggesting that Goudstikker's wife, Desi, had voluntarily sold the panels and other artworks to the Nazis, passed them to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff in 1966 without informing Desi and her son Edo, both of whom had since become U.S. citizens. The Norton Simon Museum acquired the panels from Stroganoff in 1971.
Von Saher, Edo's widow, says Göring forced Desi to give up the artworks. As the sole living heir of Jacques Goudstikker, she sued the museum in 2007 under a California law that allowed claims to recover confiscated Holocaust-era artwork from museums or galleries until the end of 2010.
A Los Angeles federal judge found the state law unconstitutional, however, and dismissed Von Saher's claim in 2009, sending the case on its first trip to the 9th Circuit. A three-judge panel affirmed, but remanded to let Von Saher amend the complaint. The California Legislature later amended the state law to extend its deadline from three to six years.
Moving to dismiss Von Saher's amended complaint, the museum argued that her claims conflicted with the federal government's policy on recovered art. U.S. District Judge John Walter agreed and dismissed, citing a petition for writ of certiorari by the U.S. Solicitor General that supported a policy of "external restitution" and respect for the decisions of foreign governments.
A appellate panel
reversed, 2-1, on Friday, reviving Von Saher's claims and remanding the case to Los Angeles.
"Von Saher's claims do not conflict with any federal policy because the Cranachs were never subject to postwar internal restitution proceedings in the Netherlands," Judge Dorothy Nelson wrote for the Pasadena majority.
In the immediate postwar era, Desi had decided to forgo the Dutch government's restitution process because she felt it "was an unjust and unfair proceeding," the panel noted. The Dutch government has since admitted that the process was "bureaucratic, cold and often even callous."
"This matter is, instead, a dispute between private parties," Nelson wrote.
Writing in dissent, Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw countered that Von Saher's claims would upset a clear federal policy to "respect the finality of the Netherlands' restitution proceedings and to avoid involvement in any ownership dispute over the Cranachs."
Von Saher's New York attorney, Lawrence Kaye, of Herrick, Feinstein, said that he has "always argued that it was a case between private parties."
Not only did the appellate panel find an "absence of conflict between Mrs. Von Saher's claims and federal policy," it found them "'in concert with that policy,'" he said in an interview, quoting from the ruling.
"Mrs. Von Saher is very gratified by the decision," Kaye added. "She's been disappointed that this case started more than seven years ago and we have not yet reached the merits of her claim. This now opens the door for her to finally get her day in court on the merits of her claim. She's very committed to continuing this case; indeed, she hopes after this decision that the museum, like so many other museums, will perhaps do the right thing and return this clearly Nazi-looted art to her as the sole heir to Goudstikker."
The museum's attorney, Fred Rowley Jr., of Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles, did not return a request for comment.