PASADENA>> In a black leather loose-leaf notebook, art collector Jacques Goudstikker described how he came to own German Renaissance masterpieces “Adam” and “Eve.”
He explained the 16th century pair of oil paintings on wooden panels came from the Church of Holy Trinity in Kiev, where they made their home for centuries, and that he bought them from a Berlin auction house after the Russian Revolution.
The Dutch art collector died in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis. And the paintings, done by Lucas Cranach the Elder, fell into German hands.
During WWII “Adam” and “Eve” hung side-by-side on a wall in the country estate of Hermann Goering, second in command of the Third Reich and a collector of looted artifacts from throughout Europe.
Ultimately, the diptych, a version of which is seen in the opening credits of “Desperate Housewives,” ended up at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena where it has been on display since 1979.
Now Goudstikker's heir, daughter-in-law Marei von Saher, who lives in Connecticut, is fighting in federal court for the diptych's return.
Her lawyer said there is no doubt the diptych belongs to von Saher, a former professional figure skater.
“We think it'll be clear, as looted art, the Norton Simon Museum has no right or interest in the works and they should be returned to the true owner,” attorney Howard N. Spiegler said.
Von Saher's lawsuit, originally filed in 2007, was recently revived when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court's ruling that dismissed the case.
The museum vowed to fight the lawsuit.
The key to Spiegler's case lies in the pages of Goudstikker's black book, which lists the Nazi-looted Cranach works as items 2721 and 2722.
Even so, the museum maintains it legally purchased the items.
“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,” museum spokeswoman Leslie Denk wrote in a statement.
In court, the museum argued that von Saher's claims are in conflict with federal policy on the restitution of Nazi-stolen art, and the district court agreed in granting the museum's motion to dismiss the case.
But the appellate court's ruling has given new life to von Saher's case. In the recent 9th Circuit ruling, Judge D.W. Nelson sided with the former figure skater.
“This litigation may provide von Saher an opportunity to achieve a just and fair outcome to rectify the consequences of the forced transaction with Goering during the war,” Judge D.W. Nelson wrote.
Her attorney said that opened the way for a jury to decide who owns “Adam” and “Eve.”
“Our client is thrilled with the decision and is particularly happy that after some seven years of what we considered to be technical roadblocks that were thrown at the case, the case will finally go back to lower court and it will now be decided on the merits of the case,” said Spiegler.
The case has gone through years of litigation, including an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to review the case.
Getting to this point has been a difficult journey for Goudstikker's heirs.
When Allied Forces invaded Germany, they found the Cranachs among Nazi-looted art and returned the paintings to the Dutch government.
However, Goudstikker's wife faced hostility in attempting to reclaim her husband's stolen artwork. Initially the Dutch government determined the sale to Goering was not coerced and would not turn over the art to Goudstikker.
In the 1990s, the Dutch government changed its stance on returning Nazi-looted art. After nearly a decade of filing restitution claims and appeals, in 2006, a special committee formed by the Dutch government determined Goudstikker's collection should be returned to von Saher.
But the government no longer possessed “Adam” and “Eve.” It had sold the paintings in 1966 to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, who claimed the Soviet Union wrongly sold the Cranachs from his family's estate to Goudstikker.
In 1971, Spencer Samuels, a New York art dealer, acquired the Cranachs from Stroganoff, which were sold to the Norton Simon Art Foundation. The Norton Simon said in a statement it believes the Dutch government transferred the paintings to the Stroganoff family as a restitution of claims that arose from the auction before the war.
In her complaint, von Saher said the paintings were wrongly returned to Stroganoff because although the Cranachs were sold with Stroganoff's collection, the diptych had come from the Church of the Holy Trinity and were not owned by Stroganoff.
In 2000, an art historian alerted von Saher that he saw the Cranachs while visiting the Norton Simon Museum.
For six years, von Saher tried to informally reclaim the artworks from the Norton Simon before she sued the museum in 2007.
Von Saher has reclaimed more than 200 artworks in order to restore her family's legacy, her attorney said.
“We're hoping as a result of this decision the museum will finally decide to do the right thing ... and return these works to the proper owner,” Spiegler said.