Elizabeth Taylor, her Van Gogh masterpiece and a legal row over looting in Nazi Germany

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The Independent US

The saga of a violet-eyed screen goddess, a victim of the Nazis and a masterpiece by a legendary artist may sound reminiscent of a far-fetched Hollywood script. But these are indeed the three elements taking centre stage in a real-life legal drama.

The saga of a violet-eyed screen goddess, a victim of the Nazis and a masterpiece by a legendary artist may sound reminiscent of a far-fetched Hollywood script. But these are indeed the three elements taking centre stage in a real-life legal drama.

Yesterday, Elizabeth Taylor, doyenne of the silver screen and Dame of the British Empire, launched legal proceedings against the descendants of a Jewish woman over the disputed ownership of a Vincent Van Gogh painting.

Ms Taylor was at the height of her fame in 1963, when her father paid £92,000 for the oil painting, View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint-Remy, at a Sotheby's auction in London.

However, the great-grandchildren of Margarete Mauthner, who owned the painting in the 1930s, claimed it was looted by the Nazis when she was forced to flee Germany. They are demanding its return or a share of its sale proceeds,

In papers filed yesterday in Los Angeles, Ms Taylor insists she is the rightful owner of the artwork, which reportedly hangs on the wall of her LA mansion. "Plaintiff, a renowned motion picture star, philanthropist, social activist and resident of the State of California, brings this action seeking a declaration that she is the rightful owner of a valuable painting by Vincent van Gogh," reads the opening sentence of the lawsuit.

While Ms Taylor is possibly most renowned for her ability to collect husbands, she has also established herself as a prolific collector of art. The 72-year-old actress, who won two Oscars during her Hollywood career, owns an expansive collection of paintings, representing masters ranging from Monet and Renoir to Pissarro and Picasso.

But it is the Van Gogh's painting of Saint-Remy, completed in 1889 only months before the artist shot himself in the chest at the age of 37, that has become the source of dispute in the lawsuit.

While the value of the painting was not disclosed, it is likely to run into millions of pounds. When Ms Taylor approached an auction house about selling the painting 14 years ago, it was valued at £10m although the sale did not go ahead.

Meanwhile, a Japanese collector paid £45m ($82.5m) for the artist's 1890 Portrait of Doctor Gachet when it was auctioned at Christie's in New York in 1990.

The row centres on the ownership of the painting in 1939, the year that Ms Mauthner was forced to flee Berlin because of persecution by the Nazis.

Ms Mauthner's great-grandchildren contacted Ms Taylor's manager two years ago to demand the return of the painting or a share of the sales, saying that it had allegedly fallen into the hands of the Nazis unlawfully. However, Ms Taylor claimed the family had failed to provide evidence that the painting had been seized illegally from Ms Mauthner.

She also maintained that the catalogue from the 1963 Sotheby's auction had stated that although the painting had once been owned by Ms Mauthner, it had subsequently been sold to two reputable galleries.

According to Ms Taylor's court papers, the painting was eventually sold to Alfred Wolf, a German Jew who in turn was forced to flee from the Nazis and moved to Argentina in 1933. The actress also claimed that a German book published in 2001 documented how Ms Mauthner had allegedly sold her Van Gogh collection to finance the emigration of her family to South Africa.

"The claimed heirs of one Margarete Mauthner waited nearly 40 years to assert that they believed they may have a claim to the painting based on its purportedly having been wrongfully expropriated by the Nazis from Mauthner, a Jewish resident of Berlin who fled to South Africa in 1939," reads the lawsuit. "Defendants have presented no evidence that the painting ever fell into Nazi hands or that its transfer was somehow coerced during the Nazi reign. To the contrary, on information and belief, Mauthner sold the painting for financial reasons before the Nazis came to power, in 1933."

As well as extensively listing Ms Taylor's acting achievements, her passionate appreciation of art and her "philanthropic" nature, the lawsuit also insists that the actress is sympathetic to the plight of those whose belongings were looted by the Nazis.

However, it alleges there was no evidence to support any of the claims made by the defendants. And it also claims the statute of limitations, which expired three years after Taylor bought the painting, should bar any claims to the artwork.

The seizure of a vast collection of valuable artworks by the Nazis has prompted a wave of litigation surrounding ownership of pieces in recent years.

Earlier this month, a lawsuit was lodged claiming the ownership of 14 paintings worth an estimated £83m from the Stedelijk museum of modern art in Amsterdam. The legal proceedings were launched by Clemens Toussaint, a German who has made a fortune from hunting down works looted by the Nazis, on behalf of heirs of the artist Kasimir Malevich.

Three months ago, an 88-year-old Jewish woman asked the United States Supreme Court to help her recover six paintings by Gustav Klimt worth £80m which were stolen from her family by the Nazis.

The most valuable painting to be returned to its owners after being looted by wartime Nazis was an urban landscape by Egon Schiele, which fetched £12.6m at auction in London last year.