By Karen Gullo
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Actress Elizabeth Taylor can keep a Vincent van Gogh painting after a federal appeals court upheld dismissal of a lawsuit by relatives of a Jewish woman who said she was forced to sell it before fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco ruled yesterday that a lower court correctly dismissed claims by descendants of Margarete Mauthner who sued Taylor for return of van Gogh's "View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint-Remy." The work was painted in 1889, a year before van Gogh committed suicide. Taylor's father purchased the painting, now worth as much as $20 million, for her in 1963.
Mauthner, an early collector of van Gogh's work, bought the painting around 1907. Her relatives claimed she sold it under duress before fleeing Germany. They sued Taylor under a 1998 law that directs the United States to work with other governments on returning works of art confiscated from rightful owners during Nazi rule. The appeals court said the act doesn't create a private right to sue.
"The provision's focus is on 'governments' rather than individuals, urging those governments 'to facilitate' enforcement of preexisting property rights," the court said. "The statute thus does not explicitly confer a benefit on Holocaust victims."
The court also said the plaintiffs waited too long to file the suit. Thomas Hamilton, attorney for Mauthner's great-grandchildren, said he will likely appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
"We're very disappointed," said Hamilton in an interview. He said that the 1998 Holocaust Victims Redress Act aimed to return artwork lost during the Nazi era to rightful owners.
"There has to be a remedy, otherwise the words mean nothing," he said.
Lawyers for Taylor, 75, claimed the painting was sold through two Jewish art dealers to a Jewish art collector with no evidence of any Nazi coercion or participation in the transactions.
"Vincent van Gogh is said to have reflected that 'paintings have a life of their own that are derived from the painter's soul,' " the court said yesterday. "The confused and perhaps turbulent past of his painting . . . may prove the truth of his observation."