The two life-sized paintings have been on display in Pasedena's Norton Simon Museum for over 30 years
Judge ruled in favor of museum on grounds that the family did not seek restitution for looted works after WWII

Two Renaissance era paintings looted by the Nazis during WWII are rightfully owned by the California museum housing them, a judge ruled last week, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"Adam" and "Eve" painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder around 1530 had been tied up in a legal battle between the museum and the family of a Dutch Jewish art dealer for a decade.

The two life-sized paintings have been on display in Pasedena's Norton Simon Museum for over 30 years after the museum's namesake bought them from the descendants of Russian aristocrats in 1971.

However, Marei von Saher, the daughter in law of Dutch Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker fought to have the paintings returned to her family, claiming that the paintings were looted by the Nazis, said the Times.

Goudstikker and his family were force to flee Holland in 1940 when the Nazis invaded, leaving behind his gallery which featured over 1,000 works.  He kept with him, however, a small book with a complete inventory of the pieces which was found on him when he died from an accidental fall on board a ship to the US. 

His gallery was taken over by new managers who were coerced into selling hundreds of works, including "Adam" and "Eve" to Nazi commander Hermann Göring.

US District Court Judge John F. Walter ruled in favor of the museum on the grounds that representatives of Goudstikker did not seek restitution for the looted works following the war, thus forfeiting their claim to them.

From Holland to California

After acquiring the paintings from Goudstikker's gallery, Goering had "Adam" and "Eve" sent to his country estate close to Berlin, said the Times.

When the Nazis were defeated, allied forces recovered the paintings, along with some 400 others taken from the gallery and returned them to the Netherlands, where the government had arranged a process for restitution.

Heinrich Hoffmann (France Presse Voir/AFP/File)

Claimants were given until 1951 to file their claim with the government, and return funds the Nazis had paid in order to receive the works.

In his judgement, Walter quoted memo dated from 1950 that was written by a high-level official from the gallery.    The gallery chose not to go through with the restitution process, the memo said, because it would result in “considerable reduction in the [firm’s] liquid assets.”

According to the Times, the Cranach paintings remained in the national art collection of the Netherlands into the 1960's, when another family laid claim to them.

Russian-born aristocrat George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff petitioned the government to return the paintings to his family, claiming that the soviets took them illegally following the Russian Revolution.

After reaching a settlement with the Dutch government in 1966, Stroganoff-Scherbatoff held onto the paintings until selling them to Norton Simon in 1971.

Plot twist

Among the documents presented to the court by the Museum was von Saher's father's membership record for the Nazi Party, the Times reported.

Von Saher, born in 1944 as Marei Langenbein, was just two years old when her parents divorced, and her mother was given custody.

She met Goudstikker's son, Edward von Saher in the 1960s, and they chose to settle and raise their family in Greenwich, Connecticut.

She began working to recover a great number of the family's works in the 1990's after Edward and his mother passed away, and succeeded in securing the return of over 200 works from the Netherlands.

Von Saher’s legal team told the Times that she was unaware of her father's affiliation with the Nazis until the Museum presented the documents of his membership for the case.

"Using this information in an attempt to discredit Ms. von Saher is nothing more than a distasteful device to evade responsibility for refusing to restitute artworks that were indisputably stolen from her husband's family," they said.

According to the Times, a 2006 appraisal of "Adam" and "Eve" put the paintings' value at over $24 million.

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