The Star 28 May 2004
A South African family and film legend Elizabeth Taylor have locked horns over ownership of a Van Gogh painting.
The actress has turned to the courts to declare her the lawful owner of the painting, which Mark Orkin, the president of the Human Sciences Research Council, and his brother Andrew Orkin and sister Sarah-Rose Adler say is theirs.
The Orkins and Adler claim that Margarete Mauthner, their great-grandmother, owned the painting, which now hangs in Taylor's mansion in Los Angeles. They say it was looted by the Nazis after she fled Germany and have demanded the painting's return or proceeds from its sale.
Mark Orkin, the former head of Statistics South Africa, on Thurday night confirmed that his family were involved in the legal tussle with Taylor.
Adler and Andrew Orkin have emigrated to Canada, where Andrew works as a lawyer.
Lawyers for the Hollywood star filed a statement of claim in Los Angeles this week, seeking a judgment that she is the owner of View of the Asylum and the Chapel at Saint Remy, a landscape painted in 1889, about 10 months before Van Gogh committed suicide at the age of 37.
Lawyers for the Orkins and Adler have shot back, describing Taylor's legal move as being completely without merit. Taylor has said the painting once belonged to Mauthner, but denies that it was seized illegally.
According to her, the painting had passed from Mauthner to two reputable galleries before being sold to Alfred Wolf, who himself fled the Nazis in 1933 for Buenos Aires, and she bought it from Wolf at a Sotheby's auction in London in 1963 for $257 000.
While Taylor tried unsuccessfully to sell the Van Gogh in 1990 for $10-million, it's believed it would fetch tens of millions of dollars today.
She alleges that evidence shows that Mauthner had sold the painting to help finance her family's emigration to South Africa.
But the defendants' lawyers say Taylor's statement shows no understanding of Nazi policy towards German Jews during the 1930s.
"It is now widely acknowledged and accepted in the art world and by recent federal legislation that German Jews sold paintings and other property during the Hitler era under circumstances that amounted to a national policy of theft," they told the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail.
The Nazis stockpiled artwork seized from Jews - a practice that has seen a flood of litigation over ownership.