Family seeks to recover looted painting from Liz Taylor

The Canadian Jewish News 11 September 2007
Abigail Cukier

HAMILTON — Members of a family who claim that actress Elizabeth Taylor has their great-grandmother’s van Gogh painting are taking their case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Hamilton lawyer Andrew Orkin and his cousins Mark Orkin and Sarah-Rose Adler of South Africa state in their petition last month that the late Margarete Mauthner was forced to give up the oil painting – 1889’s Vue de l’Asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Remy (View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint-Remy) – because of Nazi economic and political coercion before she fled Berlin for South Africa in 1939.

The family seeks to overturn rulings of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and the California District Court, which found that the the statute of limitations for the family to file a claim had expired.

But the heirs claim the painting is subject to the 1998 Holocaust Victims Redress Act, a U.S. law that regards artwork sold or forfeited as a result of the policies of Nazi Germany as having been wrongfully confiscated by Nazi authorities and requires such works to be returned to their original owners or heirs.

“We are asking the Supreme Court to consider… that when Taylor and her art dealer father bought the painting in 1963, they disregarded strong evidence that our great-grandmother lost the painting in Berlin in the late 1930s as a result of Nazi coercion,” Andrew Orkin said in a statement.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in fall whether it will hear the case.

A brochure published for Taylor by Christie’s auction house when she tried to sell the van Gogh in 1990 acknowledges that Mauthner was “among the first and most important collectors and patrons of van Gogh’s work in Germany.” It also referenced the catalogues raisonnées by renowned van Gogh expert J.B. de la Faille.

A catalogue raisonné is a complete documentation, compiled by a recognized scholar, of an artist’s production. These are widely accepted in art circles as the definitive history of a piece of art.

But, the petitioners argue, Taylor’s 1990 brochure did not disclose that the painting was registered in the two latest (1939 and 1970) catalogues raisonnées as having been owned in Berlin by Mauthner in 1937 or later. Instead, the brochure only said that Mauthner “kept the picture until at least 1928.”

They also argue that Taylor’s brochure asserted, contrary to the provenance in the two de la Faille catalogues raisonnées, that two dealers had owned the van Gogh between Mauthner and collector Alfred Wolf, from whom Taylor bought the painting in London in 1963.

Mauthner died in 1947 at the age of 84. As a young lady in Berlin, she had been part of an association of progressive artists. She was instrumental in introducing van Gogh to Germany, as she translated his letters to German in 1907.

Reported cases in many countries tell of Jewish citizens who were forced to sell artwork for food or to obtain passports, or under policies directing Jews to deposit artworks at municipal pawnshops.

The U.S. government long ago warned U.S. art dealers, museums and other purchasers of artworks that were in Germany during those years to be aware of the possibility of questionable provenance and the original owners’ right to restitution.

“Genocide cannot properly be subject to a statute of limitations and there must be an enduring right to Holocaust redress, especially in the compelling context of a case like this,” Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz, co-counsel to the family, said in a press release.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Holocaust Victims Redress Act in 1998 to assist in the restitution of assets looted or extorted from Holocaust victims.

At the time, Rep. James Leach said, “While little is more difficult than to judge the past, to establish what in this case must be called retrospective justice, it must be understood that history does not have a statute of limitations. People cannot be allowed to disappear from earth without tracks, without moral if not monetary restitution.”

Richard Altman, one the the family’s lawyer’s, says it’s “intolerable” that various U.S. Circuit Courts approach Holocaust-era claims differently.

“It is unjust that in California, a Holocaust claim can be too late, while in New York the same claim could be heard,” Altman said in a statement. “We hope that the Supreme Court will accept this case and establish a uniform nationwide rule, one that allows Holocaust survivors and their heirs to have their day in court at last, no matter where they happen to live, or wherever their property may be found.”
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