(Reuters) - A Los Angeles federal judge on Thursday denied the Norton Simon Museum's bid to dismiss a lawsuit by a woman seeking the return of prized 16th century paintings of Adam and Eve that had been looted by the Nazis during World War Two.
U.S. District Judge John Walter rejected the argument by the Pasadena, California-based museum that Marei von Saher was several decades too late in trying to recover the life-sized panels by German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, which the museum acquired in 1971.
"Stolen property remains stolen property, no matter how many years have transpired from the date of the theft," Walter wrote. "Plaintiff, whose family suffered terrible atrocities at the hands of the Nazis, will now have an opportunity to pursue the merits of her claims."
The Norton Simon Art Foundation, much of whose collection is housed in the museum, said in a statement that it "remains confident that it holds complete and proper title to Adam and Eve," and will continue to pursue "all appropriate legal options".
Lawrence Kaye, a lawyer for von Saher, said his client is "delighted" with the decision.
Von Saher is the only surviving heir of her father-in-law, Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, who had left the panels behind when he fled the Netherlands in 1940. The panels were later acquired by Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring at a fraction of their value.
But the museum said California's six-year statute of limitations for von Saher to claim the panels expired in the 1950s because Goudstikker's widow, Desi, knew that the Dutch government had taken possession of them after the war ended.
Walter, however, said the clock began anew when von Saher learned in October 2000 that the museum was displaying the Cranachs.
Because von Saher had entered a "tolling agreement" with the museum that stopped the clock after three years, the judge said her May 2007 lawsuit was not too late. He added that there was "nothing unfair" about letting her sue.
"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," he wrote.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Ken Wills