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Washington - Supreme Court Rules Against California on Holocaust Art

Published on: June 27, 2011 02:42 PM
By: AP
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Washington - The Supreme Court on Monday left intact a decision that California strayed too far into foreign affairs with a state law extending the statute of limitations for recovery of Holocaust-era art.

The decision is a victory for the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, which wants to hold on to a pair of 16th century oil paintings entitled “Adam and Eve.” It is a marked defeat for the heirs of the man who formerly owned the paintings before World War II tore everything apart.

The decision not to consider an appeal of a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case is also a reminder that foreign policy will mostly remain in federal hands.

“California has created a world-wide forum for the resolution of Holocaust restitution claims,” the 9th Circuit had concluded in 2009. “While this may be a laudable goal, it is not an area of traditional state responsibility.”

The Supreme Court, as is customary, offered neither written nor verbal explanation for its decision not to hear the appeal of the 9th Circuit’s opinion. At least four of nine justices must agree for an appeal to be heard.

Most appeals to the Supreme Court are denied without a full hearing. The petition in the case called Von Saer v. Norton Simon Museum of Art was one of more than 100 petitions denied without comment Monday.


Though some art experts and others wanted the court to hear the case, the Obama administration had weighed in to say it was unnecessary. Justices often pay close attention to the views of the solicitor general’s office.

“By targeting the claims of Holocaust survivors and their heirs to Nazi-confiscated art, rather than merely applying to such claims a law of general applicability, California has impermissibly intruded upon foreign affairs prerogatives of the federal government,” then-Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal wrote in a May brief.

The specific paintings in question were by Lucas Cranach the Elder. A Dutch art dealer purchased them in 1931, but then left them behind when he fled with his family following the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940. Nazi leader Herman Goering then acquired the paintings. Following the war, the paintings came into the possession of another dealer, who sold them to the museum.

In most cases, California imposes a three-year statute of limitations on those seeking to reclaim personal property. Under a 2002 state law, though, California allowed individuals to file property claims up until Dec. 31, 2010 for “Holocaust-era artwork.”

The appellate court decision upheld Monday noted in part that the California property claim scheme conflicted with World War II restitution programs established by the Netherlands and the United States. In part, as well, the heirs to the original Dutch art dealer who owned the Cranach paintings could still try to reclaim the paintings without resorting to the invalidated California law that gave special treatment to Holocaust-era artwork.

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