U.S. Supreme Court Signals Examination of Iconic “Adam and Eve” Artworks
"Adam and Eve"
Two 480-year-old iconic diptychs, popularized by the television show Desperate Housewives, are now under the critical eye of the United States Supreme Court.
In a rare move, the Supreme Court has requested a “Call for the Views of the Solicitor General (“CVSG”) on the matter. Such a request at the writ of certiorari stage signals a strong interest in the case.
At issue is the constitutionality of a voided California art-theft law.
Currently housed in the Norton Simon Museum located in Pasadena, California, the artworks are now being sought by Connecticut resident Marei von Saher who has been trying to assert her claim to the $240-million pieces since she first discovered them in 2001.
When negotiations failed, Saher, the daughter-in-law of a Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, filed suit in 2007.
Von Saher asserts that Goudstikker had originally bought the pieces at a 1931 Berlin auction of Soviet artwork. When he fled to Holland, the Nazi government forced him to sell the pieces.
After the war, the Goudstikker family settled with the Dutch government, leaving the pieces behind. The Dutch government then transferred ownership to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, who claimed the Bolsheviks had confiscated the paintings from his family during the Russian Revolution.
Stroganoff-Scherbatoff then sold “Adam and Eve” to Norton Simon.
The case was dismissed before it ever got to trial when Los Angeles District Court Judge John F. Walter decided that von Saher's statute of limitations had run.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. The court held that a 2002 California law that extended the time to reclaim Nazi-looted art was an unconstitutional infringement of the federal government’s sole right to establish foreign and war policy.
Although the appellate ruling did not close the door on von Saher’s claim, she is now left to convince the district court that her case falls within an older law’s statute of limitations.
Under the old law, the statute of limitations begins when the owner or heir could have “reasonably discovered” ownership rights. In this case, the museum publicized the acquisition in the 1970s.
However, if the Supreme Court upholds the 2002 California law, the court will ignore the statute of limitations and, instead, decide the matter upon the merits of the case.
Compounding the issue, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a new art-theft bill that extends the statute of limitations from three to six years and begins when the plaintiff first learnt the objects’ location.
In the end, should the Supreme Court agree to hear the matter, the court could decide to regard the 2002 California law as unconstitutional and force von Saher to amend suit to proceed under the 2010 California art-theft law.
Alternatively, the court could uphold the 2002 law and the parties will have to argue the merits of their case at the district court level.
And in the merits is the muddle of assertions by made by three historical families, three governments and two foreign policies. The question remains: how will history unfold?