Norton Simon Museum of Art and Goudstikker heiress to go to court over fight for Cranachs

Marei von Saher claims they are Nazi loot, while Norton Simon believes it has legal title to the paintings



After protracted negotiations, the sole heiress of the prominent Dutch Jewish art dealer, Jacques Goudstikker, and the Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena, have resorted to the courts to decide the ownership of two life-sized paintings, Adam and Eve (around 1530), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Marei von Saher, Goudstikker’s daughter-in-law, says the diptych was stolen by the Nazis in 1940. But the museum has filed a counterclaim, saying that it has legal title to the paintings. The museum says the paintings were once part of the Stroganoff collection that the Soviet government seized after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and that the Dutch government precluded any Goudstikker claim in 1966 when it returned the diptych to an heir of the Stroganoff family. The lawsuits were filed in federal court on 2 May.

Mrs von Saher says that Goudstikker bought the diptych at an auction in Berlin of art owned by the Soviet government in May 1931. This included works from the Stroganoff collection, but she says some of the works, including the Cranach diptych, was not “and had never been” part of the Stroganoff collection.

After Jacques Goudstikker fled the Nazi-invaded Netherlands in May 1940, dying en route, his collection was seized by Hermann Goering, Hitler’s deputy. Although much of it was returned by the Allies to the Dutch authorities for restitution in 1946, Mrs von Saher says, the art, including the Cranachs, was not returned to the Goudstikker family. The diptych, she alleges, was wrongly given to the Stroganoffs by the Dutch government, “purportedly as part of a sale transaction”, which included their giving up a claim to another work. The Cranach was given to George Stroganoff Scherbatoff, who claimed they had belonged to his family in Russia. In the 1970s, the Norton Simon Art Foundation bought the art from Mr Scherbatoff through a New York dealer.

In 2006, after a decade-long fight, the Dutch government returned an important group of 202 paintings in its possession from Goudstikker’s collection to Ms von Saher, many of which were sold at Christie’s New York on 19 April.

The Norton Simon foundation argues that title to the work passed out of the Goudstikker family’s hands when the Dutch government restituted them in 1966 to Mr Scherbatoff and that it therefore acquired lawful title when it bought the works from him. It also argues that a US court may not invalidate the Dutch government’s decision, which was an “act of state” of a sovereign government. And even if the return to Mr Scherbatoff legally counts as a sale rather than an act of state, the foundation says under Dutch law it gained “unassailable” title through Mr Scherbatoff.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Norton Simon to go to court to keep its Cranachs'