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Heir's Claim to Nazi-Looted Art Back in District Court

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD | Last updated on

If you saw "The Monuments Men," released earlier this year, then you know that Allied Forces discovered large collections of Nazi-looted art during World War II. Far from being an historical account, the repercussions of the Nazi's looting and forced sale of valuable pieces of art is still an issue that generations of families are dealing with.

In the latest case of an heir's attempt to receive what is rightfully hers, the Ninth Circuit has revived a sensitive controversy that is far from over, reports The Times of Israel.

'Adam and Eve' by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Lucas Cranach the Elder painted two life-size panels of "Adam and Eve" ("the Cranachs") in 1530, and for 400 years, the paintings were in the Ukraine, hanging in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Kiev. After the Soviet authorities made several transfers within the government, the Cranachs were sold at auction to Jacques Goudstikker in 1931.

Almost 10 years later, the Netherlands, where Goudstikker lived with his family, was invaded by the Nazis, and Goudstikker fled to South America with his wife and son. He left behind his art gallery with more than 1,200 works, but took with him a notebook detailing his collection. On the ship to South America, Goudstikker died.

Goudstikker's mother, a partial owner of the gallery, remained in the Netherlands where the Nazis forced a sale of the gallery and all of the artwork within it. After the war, the Allied Forces returned the art to the Netherlands. Goudstikker's wife tried to recover some of the art and was unsuccessful, the Dutch government finding a valid sale. She then did not make any further attempts at trying to get the Cranachs back.

After many years passed, the new Dutch government looked back at its post-WWII conduct regarding art claims and found that it was "legalistic, bureaucratic, cold and often even callous." The only remaining heir to claim the Cranachs is Goudstikker's daughter-in-law, Marei Von Saher, and she began legal action in 2007.

Her first attempt was unsuccessful, and she filed a first amended complaint, which the district court dismissed finding that her claims "conflicted with the express policy on recovered art." Von Saher appealed.

Dispute Between Private Parties

The Ninth Circuit disagreed with the district court, finding that Von Saher's claim not only did not conflict with the United States' policy on recovered art, but that "her claims are in concert with that policy." Subsequent transfers of the Cranachs led to their purchase by the Norton Simon Museum of Art at Pasadena in 1971. As such, the Ninth Circuit found that the "dispute [is] between private parties."

The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded, and instructed the district court to take great care in developing the factual record, and whether the museum could claim an act of state defense. This case is one to watch, and we will keep you posted as it progresses.

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