January 19, 2020

The twisted tale of ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ and the Nazis

Adam and Eve are in the news again, or at least so are two medieval paintings of the biblical progenitors of the human race, whose ownership has been contested for a century by noble families, national governments, museums and batteries of lawyers.

The tall seductive paintings of Adam and Eve on two separate six-foot tall panels are the work, from nearly 500 years ago, of the German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Another chapter in the paintings' stormy history was added in mid-August in Los Angeles, when U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter ruled that the two paintings, now valued at about $24 million, rightfully belong to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, where they have been on display since 1971.

In an extensive front-page article on Aug. 23, the Los Angeles Times reviewed the peregrinations of the case, while adding one more odd Nazi angle to the story.

Picking up in the early 1900s, “Adam” and “Eve” were owned by an aristocratic Russian family, but were seized after the 1917 Russian revolution by the Soviet regime.

In 1931, the Soviets, strapped for foreign currency, sold the Cranach and other paintings at a Berlin auction to the Dutch-Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker. When German armies invaded Holland in 1940, Goudstikker had to flee, leaving behind more than 1,000 works of art.

No less an art collector than Hermann Goering, the Reich’s No. 2 leader, grabbed “Adam” and “Eve” to display in his country estate near Berlin. After World War II, Allied forces recovered the pair of paintings and returned them, along with other artworks, to the Dutch government.

At this point, the Russian nobleman reappeared and successfully reclaimed the Cranach paintings, which he sold in 1971 to Jewish industrialist and art collector Norton Simon, for his museum.

Goudstikker, the Dutch-Jewish art dealer, died in an accident while fleeing the Nazis, leaving behind a son, Edward von Saher. The latter married Marei Langenbein, a German woman and professional ice skater.

The Von Sahers moved to Greenwich, Conn. After the death of her husband, Marei von Saher entered a court battle in the late 1990s to recover the Cranach painting forcefully taken from her late father-in-law, Jacques Goudstikker.

Moving to the present, earlier this year a surprising angle was added, the Los Angeles Times reported, when lawyers for the Norton Simon Museum dug up records showing that the father of plaintiff Marei von Saher had been admitted to the Nazi Party – after affirming that he was neither a Jew nor a Communist – and had fought in the German army at Stalingrad.

Whether an earlier discovery of this information might have influenced the outcome of the case is a matter of speculation. What is certain is that Judge Walter’s ruling in favor of the Norton Simon Museum will be appealed by Von Saher, keeping the controversy alive at least for another few years.

Perhaps the only recent looted art case to approach “Adam and Eve” in complexity is the nearly decade-long battle by the late Maria Altman and her attorney Randol Schoenberg to recover the Gustav Klimt portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. That case was dramatized in the movie “Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren.