The U.S. District Court in Los Angeles has denied yet another motion by the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena to dismiss claims by Marei von Saher to ownership of the Lucas Cranach paintings Adam and Eve. Ruling on the most recent argument that the claim was brought too late, the court held that the case was within California’s often-revised statute of limitations. Remarkably, even though last year’s remand from the Ninth Circuit raised the question of the application of the Act of State Doctrine, that issue went mentioned but unresolved. That could mean yet another motion before the case can proceed to trial (or even discovery).
The history of the case is extraordinarily complex. We have addressed it in detail before here, so in summary only: von Saher is the heir to the famous Goudstikker collection. The present case concerns overlapping questions both of wartime looting and to post-war restitution procedures in the Netherlands. The case has survived challenges premised on preemption, foreign affairs, and the constitutionality of the statute of limitations in California, among others.
In states besides New York, a statute of limitations on conversion (the claim that someone is wrongfully controlling your property) normally begins when the plaintiff knows, or with reasonable diligence could have known, who had the property wrongfully.
With the benefit of the revised statute of limitations, the present motion challenged the timeliness of the case. The key question therefore concerned whether the statute of limitations began when any of von Saher’s predecessors knew of the location of the painting (and therefore had to make the claim within the prescribed period), or merely whether the existence of the claim against the Norton Simon as possessor was within six years of von Saher’s awareness.
The Court held that it was. Although the case was filed more than six years after her discovery, at some point in the interim the parties apparently signed a “tolling agreement,” which suspends the expiration of any statutes of limitations while the agreement is in effect. These are typically enacted when parties are trying to negotiate a resolution, and they believe it might be possible. Avoiding litigation in the short term can often make negotiations more productive.
Lastly, the Court dismissed the idea that forcing the museum to defend itself is unfair:
Finally, the Court finds that there is nothing unfair about affording Plaintiff an opportunity to pursue the merits of her claims against Norton Simon. As the California Legislature recognized by enacting AB 2765, museums are sophisticated entities that are well-equipped to trace the provenance of the fine art that they purchase. After carefully weighing the equities, the Legislature determined that the importance of allowing victims of stolen art an opportunity to pursue their claims supersedes the hardship faced by museums and other sophisticated entities in defending against potentially stale ones. Plaintiff, whose family suffered terrible atrocities at the hands of the Nazis, will now have an opportunity to pursue the merits of her claims, and Norton Simon will have an opportunity to pursue any and all defenses to those claims.
There have been very few Nazi-looted art cases that have gone all the way to trial in the United States, but a very important one just got a big step closer.