Norton Simon Museum wins case, loses morals?

July 31 2018

Image of Norton Simon Museum wins case, loses morals?

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Regular readers will know of the long-running restitution battle over a pair of works by Lucas Cranach the Elder which hang in the Norton Simon Museum in California. The paintings, of Adam and Eve, once belonged to the Dutch Jewish art dealer, Jacques Goudstikker, whose collection was looted by the Nazis (there was a forced sale in 1940, after the invasion of Holland). For a time they hung in Goering's house, and after the war were returned to the Dutch government, along with over 200 othe Goudstikker works. But they were then given to a Russian Prince, George Stroganoff, in the 1960s, who claimed that the pictures had previously been looted from his family by the Soviets after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Stroganoff in turn sold them to the Norton Simon in 1971.

For decades now Goudstikker's heir, Marei von Saher, has been trying to reclaim the paintings from the museum, but has always lost her case in the US. Yesterday, she lost her latest case, in the Ninth Circuit Court in California.

The Norton Simon Museum has consistently fought her in the courts, arguing that because the Dutch government sold the works lawfully at the time, then it acquired lawful title to them. The Norton Simon case centres on the fact that under Dutch law, no proper legal claim was made to the Goudstikker collection immediately after the war, and before a 1951 deadline for such claims, after which most of the Goudstikker collection became part of the Dutch national collection. The US courts have accepted this argument, saying that to remove the paintings from the Norton Simon Museum would involve undoing a legal ruling in another country.

However, this disregards the fact that in 2006, the Dutch government restituted over 200 artworks to Marei von Saher, and acknowledged in the process that the Dutch government's retention of the pictures after the war had been unjust, for in fact Goudstikker's widow had made many attempts to get her husband's pictures back. 

The fact that the Norton Simon Museum's pictures were stolen by the Nazis is not in doubt. Nor is the fact that they were stolen because and - only because - their owner was Jewish. Not in dispute also is the fact that the Dutch government was wrong to retain the pictures after the war. But still the Norton Simon Museum refuses to hand them back. The museum clings to the fact that they have 'legal' title, because the specific Dutch law under which Goudstikker's wife was denied her original claim has not been repealed. 

One could argue that the Norton Simon Museum's refusal to return these pictures is a morally bankrupt, even disgraceful action, which knowingly perpetuates an injustice of one of history's greatest evils; the holocaust. I'm inclined to think it is. I don't think we can say that the Goudstikker family's claim to have the pictures back is invalid because the pictures might originally have been looted from someone else. At the very least, the museum should have cut a generous deal with Marei von Saher long ago, saving themselves a fortune in legal fees, and much criticism.

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