12 April 2005

Reclaiming family art

A US District Judge dismissed a lawsuit in February by four descendants of a German woman who had sought to recover a Vincent van Gogh painting from actress Elizabeth Taylor. According to the descendants of Margarete Mauthner, the actress failed to review the ownership history of View of the Asylum of Saint-Remy before acquiring it. The family asked for restitution and the painting, which has been appraised between $10 million and $15 million.
The plaintiffs were Mauthner's great-grandchildren - Andrew J. Orkin, a lawyer in Hamilton, Ontario, and his two South African siblings Mark Orkin (head of the Human Sciences Research Council) and Sarah-Rose Josepha Adler, and their uncle A. Heinrich Zille. The plaintiffs have never claimed that Nazis took the painting off Mauthner at gunpoint. European Jews sold property during the Holocaust era under acute political pressure and economic duress. In 2002 the Orkins first indicated that they were investigating Taylor's painting. In June 1954, the German government compensated them for the forced sale of their home in Berlin in August 1938 and for the loss of pension funds seized by the Nazis.
Judge Gary Klausner ruled that a state law only permitted the plaintiffs to sue in the three years after property was taken. Another state law that froze the statute of limitations until the property was located didn't apply. The 1998 federal Holocaust Victims Redress Act was passed to compensate Holocaust victims who lost possessions during World War II. It urges all governments to facilitate the return of private and public property, including artwork, to victims of Nazi pillaging who can prove they are the rightful owners.
Taylor's lawyers said Mauthner voluntarily sold the painting, which depicts the asylum where van Gogh lived toward the end of his life. Citing a German art book, they said Mauthner owned more than one van Gogh painting and sold her last one, View of the Sea at St Maries, in 1933 to help finance her family's move from Berlin for South Africa in 1939. According to Taylor's court documents, a letter dated 21 October 1933 by one of the employees of the gallery to which Mauthner sold the painting wrote: "Mauthner would certainly not have decided upon this course of action were it not for her nephew's moving away to seek a new life in another country [South Africa], and this provides a use of the money for a purpose that is dearer to her heart than owning the painting."
Taylor said Mauthner bought the disputed painting in 1907 from Paul Cassirer and later sold the painting back to him. It was then acquired by a Berlin art dealer, Marcel Goldschmidt, and later by Alfred Wolf. In 1963, Wolf's heirs decided to sell his collection through Sotheby's in 1963. That year, Taylor's father, Francis Taylor, bought the painting on his daughter's behalf for £92,000. The sales brochure had warned that the painting was likely confiscated by the Nazis, according to the lawsuit. Two catalogues raisonnĂ©, one written in 1928 and another in 1939, named Mauthner as the owner of the painting. A catalogue raisonnĂ© is a complete documentation, compiled by a recognised scholar, of an artist’s production. The documents are widely accepted in art circles as the definitive history of a piece of art.
Mauthner died in 1947 at age 84. As a young woman in Berlin, she was part of an association of progressive artists, and was instrumental in introducing van Gogh to Germany. She also translated his letters into German in 1907.