Court lets Liz Taylor keep van Gogh painting

Reuters 29 October 2007
By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court allowed actress Elizabeth Taylor to keep a Vincent van Gogh painting on Monday, rejecting an appeal by descendants of a Jewish woman who said she was forced to sell it before fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939.

The justices refused to review a U.S. appeals court ruling that dismissed the lawsuit because the descendants waited too long to bring their claims demanding that Taylor return van Gogh's "View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint-Remy."

Van Gogh painted the work in 1889. Less than a year later, he killed himself. Taylor's father purchased the painting on her behalf at a Sotheby's auction in 1963 in London for 92,000 British pounds -- about $257,000 at the time. The painting now is estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars.

Four South African and Canadian descendants of Margarete Mauthner, a Jewish woman who fled Germany in 1939 for South Africa, sued Taylor in 2004 in federal court in California.

The lawsuit claimed the Nazis forced Mauthner to sell the painting under duress before fleeing Germany and that it should be returned to her descendants under the 1998 U.S. Holocaust Victims Redress Act.

Taylor said the record showed the painting was sold through two Jewish art dealers to a Jewish art collector, and that there was no evidence of any Nazi coercion or participation in the transactions.

A U.S. appeals court upheld the dismissal of the lawsuit.

It ruled the descendants had waited too long to bring the lawsuit and the claims under state law were barred by the statute of limitations. 

It also ruled that the 1998 federal law refers to the United States and other governments working to return artworks confiscated during the Nazi rule to their rightful owners, but does not give individuals the right to sue private art owners.

Attorneys for the descendants appealed to the Supreme Court. "The issue is of pressing importance, given the advanced age of Holocaust survivors and their heirs," they said.

"There is a strong recent trend toward permitting claimants of Holocaust-era artwork to seek to recover them, regardless of the statute of limitations," the attorneys said in asking the Supreme Court to hear the case.

Taylor's attorneys opposed the appeal and said the appeals court's judgment was correct. They said the policy arguments by the descendants over the 1998 law should be directed to the U.S. Congress, not the Supreme Court.

In siding with Taylor, the high court turned down the appeal without any comment or recorded dissent.
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