Elizabeth Taylor sues for ownership of Van Gogh

The International Herald Tribune 3 July 2004
Kristie A Martinez (AP)

LOS ANGELES - At a time when many people are suing to recover artwork stolen from their European ancestors by the Nazis, screen legend Elizabeth Taylor has gone to court to claim just the opposite.

The two-time Oscar winner's legal drama centers on a 115-year-old Vincent van Gogh painting, "View of the Asylum of Saint-Remy," which has been in Taylor's possession since her father bought it at a London auction in 1963.

Canadian lawyer Andrew J. Orkin and three family members say the Nazis took the masterpiece from Orkin's German great-grandmother, Margarete Mauthner, during World War II and they are demanding that Taylor return the artwork to them.

No way, says Taylor, who's seeking a pre-emptive court declaration that she is the rightful owner of the painting, which hangs in the living room of her Bel-Air estate and is worth more than $10 million.

Taylor's suit runs counter to recent cases involving the recovery of art stolen by the Nazis.

In May, a Virginia museum returned a Nazi-confiscated painting to the heir of art collector Julius Priester.

In June, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed a Los Angeles woman to sue the Austrian government for the return of six Gustav Klimt paintings the Nazis took from her uncle.

Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis under Hitler's rule stole an estimated 600,000 European artworks, selling many of them to fund their programs. About 100,000 museum-quality pieces are still missing.

But in papers filed May 25 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Taylor's lawyers argued that her van Gogh is not one of them. They said Mauthner's heirs have presented no proof the Nazis stole the painting from the woman.

According to Orkin's attorney, Thomas Hamilton, Mauthner's heirs in this case include Orkin, his brother F. Mark Orkin and sister Sarah-Rose Josepha Adler, both of South Africa, and Orkin's uncle, A. Heinrich Zille, whose hometown was not known.

Howard N. Spiegler, a lawyer who has handled Nazi-confiscated art cases for three decades, said several methods could be used to prove Nazis stole a particular artwork.

Art sale catalogs from the Nazi era and catalogs listing all of an artist's works can show a family owned a painting when it was allegedly stolen, said Spiegler, who has no affiliation with either side in the Taylor lawsuit.

An insurance policy or a photograph of the painting on a family's wall also could reflect ownership, he added.

"As far as whether it was looted," Spiegler said, "the Nazis were well-known for their care in record-keeping, ironically. Often when one does research in these cases, one finds that the Nazi's own records indicate a particular work was taken."

Taylor's attorneys acknowledge in the suit that Nazis forced Mauthner and her family to give up jobs, pensions and homes. But they say they could find no "specific information about how or when Mauthner 'lost possession' of the painting."

Orkin, an Ontario resident, refused to comment to The Associated Press. Family lawyer John Byrne of Washington D.C. also had no comment.

But in an earlier statement, Orkin attorney Hamilton said his clients "never claimed that Nazis took the painting off Mauthner's wall at gunpoint" and that no such showing is required under the 1998 federal Holocaust Victims Redress Act.

The act, which was passed to compensate Holocaust victims who lost possessions during World War II, urges all governments to facilitate the return of private and public property, including artwork, to victims of Nazi pillaging who can prove they are the rightful owners.

In a statement issued last month, Taylor said she has "a tremendous amount of sympathy" for those who lost possessions during World War II and the Holocaust. She said she told her lawyers to thoroughly investigate the ownership history of the van Gogh.

"I have not been presented with any information that suggests the painting was ever in Nazi possession, nor that there is any other basis for these claims," Taylor said.

According to Taylor's court documents, Mauthner bought the contested van Gogh in 1907 from Paul Cassirer, who had an art gallery in Berlin. The painting then passed to German art dealer Marcel Goldschmidt, and then to art collector Alfred Wolf, before being auctioned in 1963.

That year, Taylor's father, Francis Taylor, bought the painting on his daughter's behalf for $257,600.

Clark Cierlak, a Sherman Oaks art appraiser, estimates "View of the Asylum of Saint-Remy" - also known in art circles as "View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint-Remy" - could sell for $10 million to $12 million at auction today.

Robert Levy, a Beverly Hills appraiser, said it could go as high as $15 million. "It would certainly fare well in today's auction market," he said. "This painting is a most desirable work from the last year of the artist's life."

Taylor's lawyers say Mauthner voluntarily sold the painting. Citing a German art book, they said Mauthner owned more than one van Gogh painting and sold her last one in 1933 to finance her family's move from Germany to South Africa.

They also assert Taylor's ownership of the van Gogh has been public knowledge since 1963, and that California's statute of limitations makes the family's argument moot.

The statute says art theft victims must file their claims within three years after they first discover an artwork is missing.

But the number of years a family waits before recovering a painting they suspect was looted by Nazis isn't the only determining factor in art theft cases, Spiegler said.

When a family finds out about the loss, as well as when the family discovers who became the owner of the artwork after their ancestors, also should be considered, he said.

"Any case involving Nazi-looted art by definition involves art that was looted years ago," he said. "There are just a lot of questions that need to be answered, and the fact that it's been a long time does not necessarily mean that one side or the other would win the lawsuit."
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