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Norton Simon Will Get To Keep Nazi-Looted Adam And Eve Paintings

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The Norton Simon Museum. (Photo by Michael Locke via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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Last week, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the Norton Simon Museum is the rightful owner of a pair of paintings depicting Adam and Eve, reports the L.A. Times.

The paintings, done by German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder around 1530, had been the focus of a legal battle that had been raging for a decade. Since the late 1990s, Marei von Saher had maintained that, at the start of World War II, the Nazis had plundered the paintings from her father-in-law, Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker. She wanted the painting back. The Norton Simon objected.

The judge said that the artworks belong to the museum because, at one point, Goudstikker's firm had the opportunity to file for restitution with the Dutch government, which had reclaimed the Adam and Eve paintings (as well other artworks stolen by the Nazis). The firm declined to file a claim. According to a 1950 memorandum by an official at the firm, the company didn't have enough assets to make the move, and that many of the paintings were "unmarketable." This, according to the judge, made the Norton Simon the rightful owners of the paintings.

The history of the artworks has been a knotty one. The paintings had ended up in the Ukraine in the early 1900s, owned either by nobles or the Church of the Holy Trinity in Kiev. They were later seized by the Soviet Union when the Russian Revolution broke out. In need of foreign currency, the Soviet Union then sold the art pieces to Goudstikker in 1931. Nine years later, Goudstikker fled Holland when the Nazis invaded, leaving behind his gallery of artworks (there were more than 1,000). He died shortly after that, and new managers were appointed to head his firm.

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Once the war had ended, Allied forces were able to retrieve many artworks that had been looted by the Nazis. These included Cranach's Adam and Eve paintings, which were returned to the Dutch government. It was at this point, around the 1950s, that the Goudstikker firm had the opportunity to file for restitution and reclaim the pieces from the Dutch government. But they declined.

A Russian-born aristocrat named George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff then said that the paintings, when they were in the Ukraine in the early 1900s, had belonged to his family. The Dutch government then reached a settlement with Stroganoff-Scherbatoff that allowed him to have the art pieces. He would later sell them to the Norton Simon in 1971 for $800,000, which is about $4.8 million today.

The paintings are among the most striking and unassuming at the museum. What's notable about them is how oddly sensual they are (when the subject matter is supposed to be didactic and cautionary). As explained by the museum's website:

Cranach's treatment of forms and space is rather abstract, even though our initial impression may focus on their apparent naturalism. The highly linear, ornamental manner, and corresponding emotional detachment, are consistent with the Mannerist aesthetic of the sixteenth century. This secular treatment of an Old Testament subject was meant for pleasure rather than instruction.

Here's a closeup of Eve from one of the two paintings: