LOS ANGELES (AP) — A New York woman who has been fighting for years over ownership of two Renaissance masterpieces seized by the Nazis during World War II won a legal round this week when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant a hearing on a Southern California museum's effort to keep her lawsuit from proceeding to trial.
At the center of the fight is "Adam and Eve," a pair of life-sized oil paintings by German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder. They have hung in Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum for more than 30 years and were appraised at $24 million in 2006.
In court papers dating to 2007, Marei Von Saher says the paintings were seized by the Nazis after her Jewish relatives fled Holland during the Holocaust. The Norton Simon says it legally acquired the works in the 1970s from the descendant of Russian aristocrats who had them wrongly taken by the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
"The Norton Simon Art Foundation remains confident that it holds complete and proper title to 'Adam and Eve,' and will continue to pursue, consistent with its fiduciary duties, all appropriate legal options," the museum said in a statement Wednesday.
Von Saher's New York attorney, Lawrence Kaye, expressed equal optimism. He noted his client fought successfully with the Dutch government for 10 years to acquire 200 other works taken from her family.
She missed out on "Adam and Eve," Kaye said, because the government had already sold those paintings to United States Naval Commander George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, who said his family lost them to the Soviets before Von Saher's family acquired them.
The case is one of many to emerge in recent years involving precious art looted by the Nazis, although this one involves two masterpieces that took a particularly circuitous route after Cranach painted them around 1530.
The paintings, which originally hung for centuries in a church in the Ukraine, were put up for auction by the Soviet government in 1931, according to court papers. Von Saher's father-in-law, Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, bought them.
They were among some 800 works seized from his gallery by Nazi official Herman Goring. They were eventually recovered by the Allied Forces group The Monuments Men and handed over to the Netherlands.
Although they were part of what the Soviets called "The Stroganoff Collection" when they auctioned them, Von Saher maintains they were never owned by that family. She sued for their return in 2007.
Federal courts twice dismissed her suits on various grounds, including that they conflicted with U.S. policy leaving it up to the countries the art was turned over to to determine who should have it. Last year, however, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the suit involved a dispute "between private parties" and the policy did not apply.
That prompted the Norton Simon to appeal to the Supreme Court.