Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Justices Will Not Hear Suit Over Elizabeth Taylor’s Van Gogh
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday left standing a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that actress Elizabeth Taylor cannot be held liable for the alleged wrongful possession of a Vincent van Gogh painting once confiscated by Nazis.
The court, without comment or dissent, denied a petition by the descendants of Margarete Mauthner, a German Jewish woman who was an early collector of the troubled Dutch post-Impressionist’s works. The petitioners argued that lower courts erred in holding that the 1998 Holocaust Victims Redress Act creates no private right of action.
At issue was the painting “Vue de l’Asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Remy,” or View of the Asylum of Saint-Remy, which has a “confused and perhaps turbulent history,” as Judge Sidney Thomas explained it for the Ninth Circuit.
Mauthner left her art and other goods behind when she fled Germany in 1939, settling in South Africa, where she died in 1947.
The paintings’ whereabouts and ownership subsequent to Mauthner’s flight and up to 1963, when Sotheby’s put it up for auction in London, are in doubt. The successful bid at the auction was for $257,600 and was made on Elizabeth Taylor’s behalf by her father, art dealer Francis Taylor.
Elizabeth Taylor has said she had never seen information suggesting the painting was ill-gotten by the Nazis.
The auction catalogue said that the painting’s owners after Mauthner were, successively, Paul Cassirer, Marcel Goldschmidt, and Alfred Wolf. Cassirer and Goldschmidt were German dealers; Wolf was a German Jewish businessman who lived in Switzerland and later South America.
There have been suggestions that Mauthner sold the painting in Germany in order to move her family to South Africa. Cassirer’s role is murky; he died in Berlin in 1926, leading the plaintiffs to argue that the provenance as stated by Sotheby’s is simply wrong.
Thomas, writing for the appeals court, said that the history makes no difference; even if the painting was confiscated, the plaintiffs have no valid claim, either under the federal statute or at common law.
The Ninth Circuit panel agreed with U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner of the Central District of California, who said that the statute did not create any enforceable rights and that the plaintiffs’ state claims were barred by the statute of limitations.
The heirs contended a sales brochure warned the painting was likely confiscated by Nazis. They asked for restitution and for the painting, which The Associated Press reported was appraised at between $10 million and $15 million when it hung in Taylor’s living room a little over two years ago.
Taylor’s attorneys acknowledged that the Nazis forced Mauthner and her family to give up their property, but said they had no information on the provenance of the painting. The plaintiffs responded that they were entitled, under a law enacted by the post-war military government, to a presumption that any transfer of the property was an act of confiscation.
Under the redress act, governments are called upon to facilitate the return of private property pillaged by the Hitler regime to the owners or their heirs. But the act cannot be enforced by a lawsuit, Thomas said, because the plaintiffs were relying upon non-binding “sense of Congress” language, the section makes no mention of any private rights, and the “overarching purpose” of the legislation is to open up records and facilitate research, not to enable suits.
Thomas also said the plaintiffs’ state claims were stale because the three-year period in which to bring an action based on the taking of goods or chattel had expired. The judge reasoned that the three-year period began no later than 1990, when Taylor placed the painting up for auction through Christie’s, placing the plaintiffs at least on constructive notice of her claim of ownership, even though the painting did not sell.
Thomas rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that the time did not commence to run until 2002, when they allegedly learned for the first time—from an Internet posting—that Taylor had the painting and that they might have a claim to it.
Several publications had mentioned the painting and Taylor’s ownership of it over the years, the appellate jurist noted.
The case is Orkin v. Taylor. The Ninth Circuit case number is 05-55364, the U.S. Supreme Court number is 07-216.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company