Friday, July 4, 2014

Does the Norton Simon Hold Art Wrongfully Sold after Nazi Seizure?

Anything to
sneak in a
picture of a
naked man.
The LA Times today reported on the continuing legal dispute over the twin paintings of Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. My first thought on seeing the article was, "funny, I could swear that I’ve seen a Cranach Adam and Eve pair. I had. There’s a similar pair of paintings at the Uffizi in Florence. I’ve seen those. On a personal note, it’s amusing that I’ve been to the Uffizi twice, but never to the Norton Simon. Maybe I should go.

And maybe I should go soon, since a recent ruling in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals gave new life to a lawsuit that claims that the Cranach paintings were illegally seized by the Nazis during World War II and never appropriately repatriated.

The two paintings hung in a church in Kiev, until the Soviet Union seized them as national property and sold them at auction in Berlin in 1931. So far, regrettable but maybe legal. The pairings were bought by Jacques Goudstikker, a Jewish art dealer in the Netherlands. When Germany invaded the country, they were seized by the Nazis. After the war, the Dutch government sold the repatriated painting to a Russian aristocratic family, the Stroganoffs, who made a claim that the painting had been their property when the Soviets seized it in the 1920s.

George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff sold the painting in 1971 to Norton Simon, however, the LA Times notes that
The truth of the Stroganoff heir’s claim is in dispute and would likely be an important issue should the case ever come before a jury.
If the paintings legitimately belonged to the Stroganoff family, why did the Dutch government sell them the paintings? And, of course, if the claims made by the Stroganoff family are false, then the seizure by the Soviets might have been legitimate (I doubt the church in Kiev gets any say on this, alas). If all that’s true, it looks like the heirs of Jacques Goudstikker are the legitimate heirs.

It’s amazing that World War II art claims are still active 70 years after the end of the war. An earlier article noted that the French museums have been caught similarly dragging their feet in processing restitution claims. For that matter, during WWII, the Soviet army took “Priam’s Treasure” from Berlin, and then denied any knowledge of the matter from 1945 until 1993. It looks like the art plundering of the World War II isn’t over yet.

As much as I’d like to see the Cranach paintings (despite no particular industry on my part in doing so), I also hope they end up in the hands of their rightful possessors, even if that means they end up further away from me.
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