Marei von Saher vs. Norton Simon Museum of Art at Pasadena, et al.
This case concerns two sixteenth-century oil paintings looted in 1940 from the collection of noted Dutch Jewish art collector and dealer Jacques Goudstikker. The two paintings in question, "Adam" and "Eve" by Lucas Cranach the Elder, were acquired by the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, California in or around 1971, and have been regularly on view. In May of 2007, Marei von Saher, who is the Goudstikker's sole heir, filed a complaint in the Federal Court for the Central District of California seeking to recover the looted property. She alleged that her claim was timely pursuant to Cal. Code. Civ. Proc. §354.3, which extended the limitations period for the recovery of Nazi-looted art in museums and galleries until December 31, 2010.
The museum moved to dismiss the complaint, and the court granted the motion. The court held that section 354.3 was an unconstitutional intrusion into the federal foreign affairs power and also found that the regular three-year limitations period under Cal. Code. Civ. Proc. §338 had expired. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling that section 354.3 was an unconstitutional infringement on the federal government’s exclusive power to conduct foreign affairs. However, the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision on §338, concluding that von Saher’s claim was not time-barred on the face of the complaint and that she should be allowed to amend her complaint to allege timeliness under §338.
In April 2010, von Saher petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a Writ of Certiorari, arguing that the issue of the District Court ruling a state statute unconstitutional should be heard by the nation’s highest court. Three amicus briefs were filed on behalf of the plaintiff—from a group of Californian organizations, from the Attorney General of California, and from the Commission for Art Recovery. At the request of the court, the Solicitor General filed an amicus brief providing the views of the United States, which argued that §354.3 improperly infringed on the federal government’s foreign affairs powers. The Supreme Court denied von Saher’s petition on June 27, 2011. While this petition was pending, the California legislature extended the statute of limitations for all stolen art claims -- not just Holocaust-era claims as has been the case with Cal. Code. Civ. Proc. §354.3 -- to six-years from the time of “actual” discovery of the location of the stolen artwork and the information about the theft needed by the victim to make the claim.
Von Saher filed an amended complaint with the District Court on November 8, 2011. Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss was granted on March 22, 2011. The court found, based largely on the brief submitted by the Solicitor General in the Supreme Court, that the claims themselves were preempted by the foreign affairs doctrine.
The constitutionality of a similar statute to the one in von Saher was at issue in Movsesian v. Victoria Versicherung which went through the California Federal Courts at the same time the von Saher case was under consideration. Von Saher and Movsesian were designated as “related cases” and were heard together by the same three-judge panel on the same day. The initial decisions by the panel found that both §354.3 and §354.4 impermissibly intruded on the federal government’s foreign affairs powers. Both plaintiffs sought rehearing. Von Saher’s decision for rehearing was denied on January 14, 2010. On December 10, 2010, the three-judge panel granted rehearing in Movsesian and reversed its prior decision. The Defendants in Movsesian then sought rehearing en banc by the Ninth Circuit, which was granted. On February 23, 2012, the Ninth Circuit held that section 354.4, which extended the statute of limitations for insurance claims brought by Armenian Genocide victims, is preempted under the foreign affairs doctrine. The claimants will petition the Supreme Court to hear the appeal.
Lucas Cranach the Elder Adam ca. 1530, Eve ca. 1530
- Ninth Circuit’s Decision of August 19, 2009
- Motion to Stay Issuance Of Mandate and for Leave to File a Petition for Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals , June 27, 2011
- Movsesian, et al v. Versicherung Opinion, February 23, 2012
- Movsesian APPELLEES HARRY ARZOUMANIAN, GARO AYALTIN, MIRAN KHAGERIAN AND ARA KHAJERIAN MOTION TO STAY THE MANDATE, March 14, 2012
- ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS’ MOTION TO DISMISS, March 22, 2012
- Movsesian Motion to Stay the Mandate Granted, March 23, 2012
Press & Scholarly
- Norton Simon's Disputed 'Adam and Eve' Getting Closer Look from Supreme Court, Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times, October 4, 2010
- Carla Shapreau, IFAR Journal, vol 11, no 2, pp 10-11. "California's Holocaust Era Statute of Limitations Struck Down -- But Heir Allowed to Pursue Claim for Cranachs"
- LA Times on the recent ruling