NEW YORK—A federal judge in Los Angeles dismissed a civil lawsuit filed against Elizabeth Taylor over the ownership of Vincent van Gogh’s View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint-Remy, 1889. U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled on Feb. 2 that the California statute of limitations barred the claim of the descendants of Margarete Mauthner, a German Jew who had fled to South Africa in 1939.
The dispute began last May, when Taylor sought a declaratory judgment from the court that she is the rightful owner of the painting, which her father bought for a quarter-million dollars at a Sotheby’s London auction in 1963. The van Gogh now has an estimated value of $10/15 million. Technically Taylor’s case is still pending.
Heirs in South Africa and Canada, in their restitution claim, contended that two catalogues raisonné, from 1928 and 1939, had named Mauthner, of Berlin, as the owner.
In October they asked the court to dismiss Taylor’s claim, contending that Mauthner had lost the van Gogh through Nazi persecution, and that the painting should be returned to them under the terms of the 1998 U.S. Holocaust Victims Redress Act. The heirs then filed the suit against Taylor that has just been dismissed by Judge Klausner.
The judge ruled that California’s three-year statute of limitations applied; that the claims period had ended in 1966. The court noted that state law allows heirs the right to sue galleries and museums for the return of Holocaust-era artworks until 2010, free from statutes of limitations. However, this statute does not apply to claims against individuals.
Taylor’s attorney Steven A. Reiss, of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, New York, said it was not a case of Nazi looting. “This painting was sold in 1928, five years before the Nazis came to power, to another Jewish art dealer, who took it out of the country,” he explained.
Reiss was especially troubled that this was raised as a Holocaust claim. “What bothers me so much about the way claimants’ and plaintiffs’ lawyers go about this [is], they simply throw up the whole specter of an awful event, which is obviously horrendous, and simply expect everyone to stop taking any notice of the particulars about a particular piece of art,” he told ARTnewsletter.
Mauthner’s heirs were considering an appeal. “We obviously don’t agree with the court’s ruling,” said their attorney Thomas J. Hamilton of the firm Byrne Goldenberg & Hamilton in Washington, D.C.
“I think [Taylor’s] complaint for declaratory relief does indeed misapprehend entirely Nazi policy to Jewish citizens of Germany during the 1930s,” Hamilton said, “and I don’t think that the court’s ruling acknowledges the reality of the Holocaust either.”