Elizabeth Taylor’s Van Gogh painting “Vue de l’Asile et de la Chapelle de Saint Remy” was the subject of a recent suit by the heirs of a prior owner seeking to recover the painting. Margarete Mauthner’s heirs sued Taylor in federal court, 41 years after she purchased the painting from Sotheby’s in 1963. Mauthner owned the painting from 1914 until 1939, when she fled Nazi Germany. Her painting was seized by the Nazis and ended up in Sotheby’s Auction House in London in 1963, which sold it to Taylor.
The heirs claimed that Sotheby’s gave Taylor inconsistent and conflicting information about the history of the picture, which should have alerted Taylor that the validity of the painting’s ownership was in question. This issue was never decided, however, because the Judge dismissed both legal theories the heirs brought forth. The first theory was based on traditional state law based claims for conversion and restitution methods California state law for regaining possession. These claims were barred by the statute of limitations with regards to recovering stolen property, which starts when the purchaser, in this case Taylor, takes possession of the property. She bought the painting in 1963, and therefore the deadline in California to file suit was 1966.
The second theory the heirs relied on was based on the the federal Holocaust Victims Redress Act, the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, and the “findings and declarations of the California legislature.” The Judge reasoned that none of these sources created a basis on which to sue. Courts are reluctant to create a new cause of action Congress has not explicitly created through legislative action. Here, the legislature intended the government to help victims recover their property under current laws.