California AG Seeks Return of Nazi-Stolen Artwork

California Attorney General Jerry Brown today filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court supporting a Connecticut woman who seeks the return of two 500-year-old paintings stolen by the Nazis during World War II.  According to the brief, the paintings were kept for a time in the estate of Nazi leader Hermann Göring and then purchased 40 years ago by the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, California.

The paintings at issue, two panels of “Adam and Eve,” were painted by 16th century German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder.   Last year the paintings were appraised at $24 million.  According to the attorney general’s press release, the works were confiscated by Nazi soldiers from an Amsterdam gallery owned by a relative of Marei Von Saher during the war.

Brown’s amicus brief, submitted in support of Von Saher’s petition for a hearing before the Supreme Court, argues California has the right to extend the statute of limitations for filing Nazi-era claims beyond the usual three-year limit.  Brown argues “California has a compelling interest in preserving its ability to regulate in areas of traditional state responsibility and in defending its lawfully enacted statutes where they do not conflict with federal law or foreign policy.”

At issue is whether the Ninth Circuit in Marei Von Saher v. Norton Simon Museum of Art improperly invalidated section 354.3 of the California civil procedure code, which extends the limitations period in which plaintiffs may seek recovery of artwork looted during the Nazi-era.  The Ninth Circuit said regulating stolen property within state museums was not a traditional state interest and was therefore subject to field preemption analysis.

Brown argues the statute should have been subject to conflicts-preemption analysis, not field preemption, because California was regulating within an area of traditional responsibility.  According to the amicus, the Ninth Circuit improperly expanded the doctrine of field preemption, as it relates to the foreign affairs doctrine, beyond the limits set by  American Ins. Assn. v. Garamendi.  Moreover, California did not inject itself into relations with foreign countries by extending the limitations period for claims to recover artwork from museums and galleries within the state.

The docketed case is Marei Von Saher v. Norton Simon Museum of Art at Pasadena, et al., No. 09-1254 (April 16, 2010).

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