In two cases, families of victims ask court for return of Nazi-looted art

Jewish Telegraph Agency 10 February 2005
Tom Tugend

LOS ANGELES  -- Actress Elizabeth Taylor has won a judgment in her struggle to retain a van Gogh painting that has been claimed as Nazi-looted art.

The ruling in Taylor's efforts to keep van Gogh's "View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint-Remy" has been accompanied by a development in another art case dating from the Holocaust era.

In the decision announced Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Gary Klausner ruled against Canadian attorney Andrew Orkin because the statute of limitations has expired.

At stake in the Taylor case is which the actress bought 41 years ago for $257,000 but is now believed to be worth between $10 million and $15 million.

Her ownership has been contested by Orkin, who claims that the painting had been confiscated by the Hitler regime from his great-grandmother, Margarete Mauthner, who then lived in Berlin and later emigrated to South Africa.

Orkin said he had been advised not to comment on the case, but his attorney, Tom Hamilton, issued a statement claiming judicial errors and announcing a possible appeal.

In the second case, descendants of German Jews advanced their claims to works by Picasso and Pissarro.

That case has been met with even greater interest in the legal and art worlds because of a ruling that an art dealer or gallery owner can be sued for the proceeds he gained by selling Nazi-looted paintings.

Although the case involves two different families and two different paintings, the pleadings were combined because they involved the same art dealer and identical issues, said Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg.

The art dealer is Stephen Hahn, a gallery owner formerly in New York and now in Santa Barbara, Calif. According to court records, in 1975 Hahn sold Picasso's "Femme en Blanc" to a private Chicago collector, Marilyn Alsdorf.

In 2002, Thomas Bennigson, a University of California law student in Oakland, tracked down the painting's provenance, which showed that the Picasso had belonged to his grandmother, Carlota Landsberg of Berlin, before being taken forcibly by the Nazis.

In 1976, Hahn sold Pissarro's "Rue de Saint Honore Apres Midi, Effet de Pluie" to Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen, whose family allegedly had close ties to Hitler.

Recently, Claude Cassirer of San Diego spotted a picture of the painting in a catalogue of the Thyssen collection.

Cassirer's grandmother, Lilly Neubauer-Cassirer, a German Jew, had been forced to sell the Pissarro for a fraction of its value under Nazi pressure.

In her ruling, Superior Court Judge Denise deBellefeuille found that the use of a "constructive trust" on the sale proceeds of the two paintings was a proper remedy when a person earns compensation from the sale of property belonging to another.

Schoenberg said, "This is the first time that I know of that someone has tried to sue downstream to recover from a dealer who sold Nazi-looted paintings."

However, he acknowledged that many Nazi-looted art cases represented a "Solomonic problem," pitting heirs of the original owners against someone who might have bought the painting later in good faith.

"But you can't cut the painting in half," he said. "So under American law, the original owner gets back the property."
© website copyright Central Registry 2024