Supreme Court rules against California on Holocaust art

McClatchy NewspapersJune 27, 2011 

WASHINGTON _ The Supreme Court on Monday left intact a decision that California had strayed too far into foreign affairs with a state law that extended the statute of limitations for recovering 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 titled “Adam and Eve.” It's a marked defeat for the heirs of the man who owned the paintings before World War II tore everything apart.

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

“California has created a worldwide forum for the resolution of Holocaust restitution claims,” the 9th U.S. 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 oral explanation for its decision not to hear the appeal of the 9th Circuit’s opinion. At least four of the nine justices must agree for an appeal to be heard.

Most appeals to the Supreme Court are denied without full hearings. The petition in the case called Von Saher v. Norton Simon Museum of Art was one of more than 100 petitions that were 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 paintings in question were by Lucas Cranach the Elder. A Dutch art dealer purchased them in 1931, then left them behind when he fled with his family after the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940. Nazi leader Hermann Goering then acquired the paintings. After 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 who seek 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 of the original Dutch art dealer who owned the Cranach paintings could still try to reclaim them without resorting to the invalidated California law that gave special treatment to Holocaust-era artwork.

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