The Norton Simon Museum’s Multi-Million-Dollar Nazi Restitution Case of Two Paintings by Cranach the Elder, Explained
Lucas Cranach the Elder painted the two panels in question, Adam andEve, in 1530. They passed through the hands of many well-known art collectors, eventually ending up in the collection of infamous Nazi leader Hermann Göring. Before that, Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker (father-in-law to the heir bringing the current lawsuit) purchased Adamand Eve from the Soviet Union itself, at a 1931 auction. The historical point would go on to have legal significance: The Norton Simon Museum contends that the Soviet Union had confiscated the paintings from the aristocratic Stroganoff-Scherbatoff family during the 1920s, although that argument is disputed by Goudstikker’s heir and her legal representatives.
Undisputed is the fact that the Nazis eventually forced Goudstikker to sell much of his famous art collection. (Under U.S. law, forced sales are viewed as thefts.) As the Nazis moved towards the Netherlands, Goudstikker fled Europe with his wife and young child in 1940. While on a boat that was taking him and his family to the U.S., Goudstikker fell to his death. After World War II, Goudstikker’s widow and then-heir, Desi Goudstikker, attempted to trace and recover the family’s collection with the assistance of her late husband’s “Blackbook,” which listed his art assets and holdings.
Adam and Eve were recovered when U.S. forces found Göring’s cache of stolen art, following the war’s end in 1945. They subsequently returned the works to the Netherlands. At that time, Allied nations made ownership decisions and returned works to rightful owners. Official records show that in 1966 the Netherlands returned the Cranach paintings to the heir of the Russian family, George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff. Eventually he sold the works to a dealer, who then sold them to the Norton Simon Museum in 1971.
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