MANHATTAN - A Canadian attorney and his family sued the Swiss government and a prominent Swiss museum for a Vincent Van Gogh pen-and-ink drawing they say their great-grandmother sold under duress as her family tried to flee the Nazis in their native Germany.
Andrew Orkin, of Ontario, claims Oskar Reinhart, the Swiss art collector who bought the drawing and bequeathed it to the Museum Oskar Reinhart am Stadtgarten, took advantage of Margarethe Mauthner's dire circumstances and bought the drawing for considerably less than its market value.
To bolster his complaint in Manhattan Federal Court, Orkin cited precedents set by other museums, and the findings of the Swiss Federal Council on Nazi-era Activities and Dealings, a government commission which concluded that the circumstances surrounding Reinhart's purchase of the drawing were "morally questionable."
Orkin, who unsuccessfully sued the actress Elizabeth Taylor in 2005 for return of a Van Gogh oil painting believed to have been plundered by the Nazis during World War II, wants the drawing declared a "flight asset," which never legitimately passed from Mauthner to Reinhart. Therefore, Orkin says, Mauthner's heirs should get it back or be compensated at its current $5 million market value.
The survivors include Orkin, his two siblings and two maternal cousins.
The complaint describes Mauthner, a Jew, as a pioneer collector of avant-garde art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She acquired numerous works by Van Gogh after his death in 1890, including the 1888 drawing that is the focus of this action, "Les Saintes-Maries de la Mer," and another, "Garden of Flowers."
Eventually, she showed about a half dozen of Van Gogh's works in her adopted home city of Berlin. In 1906, she undertook the first translation of his letters into German, and published articles on his work in "Kunst & Kunstler," a German art journal.
But that came when the Nazis enacted laws barring "non-Aryans" from employment. Mauthner and her family were dispossessed of almost all their property, and their livelihoods.
To survive and finance the flight from Germany, Orkin said Mauthner sold her home, its furnishings and important artworks in her collection at bargain basement prices. Orkin says Mauthner asked for 12,500 Swiss francs for the drawing, but accepted a counteroffer of 10,000 Swiss francs.
Reinhart donated his collection of 18th to 20th century European art to the city of Winterthur, Switzerland, in 1940. Most of his collection has been displayed at the defendant Museum Oskar Reinhart am Stadtgarten since 1951. He bequeathed the rest of his collection to the Switzerland in 1958. That collection was opened to the public in 1970.
In May 2007, a U.S. Appeals Court upheld a ruling that the statute of limitations had expired for Orkin in his claim against Elizabeth Taylor, seeking the return Van Gogh's "Vue de l'Asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Remy," then valued at more than $10 million.
In that case, filed in 2005, Orkin claimed that the actress, who bought the painting in 1963 at a Sotheby's auction, failed to examine papers that detailed the painting's provenance.
But the appeals court ruled in 2007 that Orkin and his family did not have the right to sue for the return of confiscated property. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Afterward, Orkin said his family was proud to have brought the Holocaust-related art claim. "We anticipated from the outset it would be a long and tough case, and were not mistaken," Orkin wrote. "Our claim, like thousands of others in recent years, was prompted by the US 1998 Holocaust Victims Redress Act and related U.S. laws, which were premised on the necessary setting-aside of common-garden statutes of limitations."
Orkin claimed that the "knee-jerk application ... of the statute of limitations does not disprove the fundamental legitimacy of our claim against Ms. Taylor. We have now established -- at least in California and with respect to Ms. Taylor -- that these Holocaust 'redress' laws were an empty promise.
"We look forward to a day when the fruits of genocide-related 'thefticide' are restored to their rightful owners without the unjust application of technical defenses," he wrote.
Orkin's attorney, Richard Altman said the facts of the case and the fact standards in applied in case against a private person are different that those against a foreign government, markedly distinguish the current case against the Liz Taylor action.
Moreover, New York law is much more favorable to the recovery of stolen property such as Nazi-era artworks that California, which is as it should be, Altman said.
In the new case, Orkin asserts claims for recovery of chattel, rescission and conversion, and seeks damages for unjust enrichment and violation of international law.