Should there be a time limit on restitution claims? (Part II)

Further to our previous article on whether there should be an expiration date on restitution claims, a Los Angeles federal judge has denied California’s Norton Simon Museum’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a woman seeking the return of two paintings in their collection on the grounds that the claimant is too late.  

The two paintings in dispute, Adam and Eve, are by the 16th century German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder were collectively valued in 2006 at $28.3 million. The woman who has been fighting for the paintings since 2007 is Marei von Saher, heir to the Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, who owned a 1200 piece art collection that fell into Nazi hands after he fled the Netherlands in 1940. These oil on panel paintings were at one point hung in the house of Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.

In 1945 they were returned to the Dutch government by allied troops. The government retained the diptych until 1966, when they gave the paintings back to the owners before Goudstikker. In 1970-71, the Norton Simon Museum bought the works.

The museum’s argument was that the statute of limitations had expired because von Saher’s ‘predecessor-in-interest’, the widow of Goudstikker, knew that the works had been in possession of the Dutch government some time between 1946-1952, and chose not to pursue a claim.

Von Saher argues that the case only began in October 2000, when she discovered the works were at the Norton Simon.

The judge dismissed the museum’s arguments saying that: “the fact that the statute of limitations may have expired as to an owner’s claim against the thief (or prior possessor) is irrelevant”. A “thief cannot convey valid title no matter how much time has passed, the subsequent possessor’s acquisition of stolen property constitutes a new conversion… the owner is entitled to a new limitations period”.

The ruling concludes “that the importance of allowing victims of stolen art an opportunity to pursue their claims supersedes the hardship faced by museums and other sophisticated entities in defending against potentially stale ones.”

This means that the plaintiff “whose family suffered terrible atrocities at the hands of the Nazis, will now have an opportunity to pursue the merits of her claims, and Norton Simon will have an opportunity to pursue any and all defenses to those claims.”

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