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Court fails to resolve Norton Simon art suit

August 20, 2009|Mike Boehm

A federal appeals court Wednesday struck down as unconstitutional a 2002 California law giving owners and heirs to artworks looted by the Nazis extra time -- until the end of 2010 -- to sue for their return.

But the 2-1 ruling by a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco did not settle the specific case at hand: Does the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena own one of the most prized works in its galleries, Lucas Cranach the Elder's circa 1530 depiction of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, valued at $24 million? Or do the two wood panels rightfully belong to the daughter-in-law of a Dutch-Jewish art dealer who fled the Germans in 1940?

The appeals court said Connecticut resident Marei Van Saher's case can proceed if she can convince the trial judge who dismissed it that she has met California's regular statute of limitations, which gives victims three years to sue.

The appeals court upheld the determination by John F. Walter, the U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles who threw out Von Saher's suit in October 2007, that California's law extending the statute of limitations for Holocaust art restitution intruded on federal prerogative to set policy on war and foreign affairs.

But the appeals court ruled that Walter should not have dismissed the case altogether because "it is not clear that the [regular three-year] statute of limitations has expired" on Von Saher's claim.

The Norton Simon acquired the two Cranach panels in 1971, but the appeals court said that the statute of limitations clock would not have begun until Von Saher "discovered or reasonably could have discovered" that she had an ownership claim and that the painted panels were hanging at the Norton Simon.

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mike.boehm@latimes.com

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