Orkin v. Taylor

Decision Date18 May 2007
Docket NumberNo. 05-55364.,05-55364.
Citation487 F.3d 734
PartiesAndrew J. ORKIN; F. Mark Orkin; Sarah-Rose Josepha Adler; A. Heinrich Zille, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Elizabeth TAYLOR, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Thomas J. Hamilton, Byrne Goldberg & Hamilton, PLLC, Washington, DC, for the appellants.

Steven Alan Reiss, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP, New York, NY, for the appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California; R. Gary Klausner, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-04-08472-RGK.

Before: WILLIAM C. CANBY, JR. and SIDNEY R. THOMAS, Circuit Judges, and SUZANNE B. CONLON,* District Judge.

THOMAS, Circuit Judge.

Descendants of Jewish art collector Margarete Mauthner (collectively, "the Orkins") claim that their ancestor was wrongfully dispossessed of a painting during Hitler's Nazi regime, entitling them to ownership of the painting, which was later purchased by actress Elizabeth Taylor. In this appeal, we conclude that the Holocaust Victims Redress Act does not create a private right of action and that the Orkins' state law claims are barred by the statute of limitations. We affirm the judgment of the district court, dismissing the complaint.


Vincent van Gogh is said to have reflected that "paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter's soul." The confused and perhaps turbulent history of his painting Vue de l'Asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy may prove the truth of his observation.

In 1889, a few months after cutting off the lower part of his left ear following a dispute with Paul Gauguin, van Gogh entered the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum near the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. During this period of his life, he produced over 150 paintings, including some of his most famous works, such as The Starry Night. In the summer or fall of 1889, he painted Vue de l'Asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy, which may have been part of a series that he described to his brother Theo as "Sketches of Autumn." The painting portrays either the Church of Labbeville near the town Auvers, a few miles from the asylum, or a monastery that was part of the asylum. Within a year of completing the painting, van Gogh died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. Since his death, however, his works have indeed had lives of their own. After Vincent's death in 1890, and his brother Theo's death six months later, ownership of Vue de l'Asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy passed to Theo's widow, Johanna. The German art dealer Paul Cassirer, an early promoter of the works of van Gogh and other post-impressionist artists, purchased the painting in 1906 or 1907. Shortly thereafter, Cassirer sold the picture to Margarete Mauthner, an early collector of van Gogh's works. The parties vigorously dispute the circumstances under which Mauthner parted with the painting, and that dispute forms the basis of the current controversy between the parties. We need not, and we do not, resolve those factual disputes in this appeal because the issues before us are purely legal in nature. However, a description of the general factual background of the case—highlighting where appropriate the factual disputes—is helpful to frame the legal issues presented.

One of the tools used by art historians to trace ownership is an artist's catalogue raisonné. A catalogue raisonné is an annotated, illustrated book of a particular artist's works, usually prepared by art historians, scholars, and dealers, which constitutes "a definitive listing and accounting of the works of an artist." DeWeerth v. Baldinger, 836 F.2d 103, 112 (2d. Cir. 1987). A catalogue raisonné published in 1928, L'oeuvre de Vincent Van Gogh Catalogue Raisonné, shows Margarete Mauthner as the owner of the painting. J.B. de la Faille's catalogue raisonné of van Gogh, published in 1939, also identifies Mauthner as the owner.

From the time of Adolf Hitler's election as Chancellor of Germany in 1933 until the end of World War II, Hitler's Nazi regime engaged in a systematic effort to confiscate thousands of works of art throughout Europe. Hector Feliciano, The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art 3 (Basic Books 1997). Within Germany, the enactment of the Ordinance for the Attachment of the Property of the People's and State's Enemies and the Ordinance for the Employment of Jewish Property gave Nazi officials the authority to seize artwork from Jewish owners under color of law. Jonathan Petropoulos, Art as Politics in the Third Reich 190 (University of North Carolina Press 1996).

As the Nazis' persecution accelerated, Mauthner fled Germany to South Africa in 1939, leaving her possessions behind. She remained there until her death in 1947, at the age of 84. What happened to Vue de l'Asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy during that time is not clear from the record. A 1970 catalogue raisonné prepared by a committee of scholars in the Netherlands lists the next owner as Alfred Wolf, a Jewish businessman who left Germany for Switzerland in 1934 and ultimately relocated to South America. The auction catalogue prepared by Sotheby & Co. in 1963 lists the provenance, or chain of title, as including three owners prior to Wolf. The Sotheby's catalogue traces the ownership of the painting from Mauthner to Paul Cassirer, to Marcel Goldschmidt, and then to Alfred Wolf. The Orkins contend that this chain of ownership cannot be correct because Paul Cassirer had committed suicide in 1926, two years before the 1928 catalogue raisonné was published, listing Mauthner as the owner.

Notably, the Orkins do not contend that the painting was confiscated by the Nazis. Rather, they allege economic coercion, contending that Mauthner sold the painting "under duress." They note that laws promulgated by the Allied Forces after the conclusion of World War II established a presumption that any transfer or relinquishment of property by a persecuted person within the period January 30, 1933 to May 8, 1945 was an act of confiscation. Military Government Law No. 59 § 375(b).

Taylor contends that, at best, the record shows that 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.

In short, the parties agree that Mauthner once owned the painting and that it was later possessed by Alfred Wolf. At this point in the development of the case, the rest of what transpired with the painting during the 1930s in Berlin is clouded in uncertainty. Sometime in the early 1960s, the Estate of Alfred Wolf commissioned Sotheby's to sell by auction a number of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, including Vue de l'Asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy.

With the help of her father, who was an art dealer, Elizabeth Taylor began collecting art in the 1950s, acquiring works of Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Cassatt and other prominent artists. She had long wanted to acquire a van Gogh. While living in London with her husband, Richard Burton, Taylor learned that Vue de l'Asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy would be offered at a Sotheby's auction in April 1963. She authorized her father to bid for her at the auction, and he was successful in purchasing the painting on her behalf for £ 92,000.

Taylor's acquisition was publicized at the time. Subsequently, the 1970 catalogue raisonné referenced Taylor's ownership. From November 1986 until March 1987, the painting was exhibited publicly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in an exhibition entitled Van Gogh in Saint Rémy and Auvers.

In 1990, Taylor offered the painting for sale through Christie's auction house in London. The provenance for the sale lists Taylor as the current owner, with the prior owners being Alfred Wolf (of Stuttgart and Buenos Aires), Marcel Goldschmidt & Co. (of Frankfurt), Margarete Mauthner (of Berlin), Paul Cassirer (of Berlin), and Johanna van Gogh-Bonger (of Amsterdam). The work did not sell at the auction.

In 1998, Congress enacted three statutes pertaining to victims of Nazi persecution: the Holocaust Victims Redress Act ("Act"), Pub.L. No. 105-158, 112 Stat. 15 (1998), the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act of 1998, Pub.L. No. 105-167, 114 Stat. 2865 (1998), and the United States Holocaust Assets Commission Act of 1998, Pub.L. No. 105-186, 112 Stat. 611 (1998). The Orkins allege that their inquiry into whether their ancestor, Mauthner, may have lost her art collection due to Nazi persecution began upon the passage of these acts. They retained a law firm in 2001 and claim that, until their attorneys completed their investigation, they did not discover the basis of their current claim. The Orkins allege that, before they began that investigation, they did not know that Mauthner had owned Vue de l'Asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy, that she had lost the painting as a result of Nazi persecution, that Taylor had bought the painting, or that there was a legal basis for recovering the painting. They also claim that they first learned of Taylor's ownership in 2002, through a rumor on the internet that Taylor was interested in selling the painting.

In December 2003, the Orkins wrote a letter to Taylor, demanding that she return the painting to them. After some discussion of settlement, Taylor wrote a response letter declining settlement and asserting that the Orkins' claim to the painting was untimely. Taylor then filed a complaint for declaratory relief to establish her title.

In 2005, the Orkins filed their First Amended Complaint for recovery of the painting under theories of specific recovery, replevin, constructive trust, restitution, and conversion. The district court dismissed the complaint, concluding that the state-law actions were time-barred and that the federal statute did not create a private right of action....

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