Descendants of Margarete Mauthner claim "View of the Asylum of Saint-Remy" (search) was taken from the German woman during World War II, and are demanding the Taylor return the painting, which appraisers said could fetch $10 million to $15 million at auction.
Taylor, whose father bought her the painting at a London auction in 1963, has filed a lawsuit seeking a pre-emptive court declaration that she is the rightful owner of the painting, which hangs in the living room of her Bel-Air estate.
In a statement issued last month, Taylor said she has "a tremendous amount of sympathy" for those who lost possessions during World War II and the Holocaust (search). She said she told her lawyers to thoroughly investigate the ownership history of the 115-year-old van Gogh.
"I have not been presented with any information that suggests the painting was ever in Nazi possession, nor that there is any other basis for these claims," the two-time Oscar winner said.
Seeking the painting are Canadian lawyer Andrew J. Orkin, his South African siblings F. Mark Orkin and Sarah-Rose Josepha Adler, and their uncle, A. Heinrich Zille, whose home country was unavailable. Andrew Orkin is Mauthner's great-grandson, said his attorney Thomas Hamilton.
Taylor's attorneys acknowledge in her lawsuit, filed May 25 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, that Nazis forced Mauthner and her family to give up jobs, pensions and homes. But they say they could find no "specific information about how or when Mauthner 'lost possession' of the painting."
Orkin, an Ontario resident, refused to comment to The Associated Press. Family lawyer John Byrne of Washington, D.C., also had no comment.
In an earlier statement, Hamilton said his clients "never claimed that Nazis took the painting off Mauthner's wall at gunpoint" and that no such showing is required under the 1998 federal Holocaust Victims Redress Act.
The act, which was passed to compensate Holocaust victims who lost possessions during World War II, 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 say 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 in 1933 to finance her family's move from Germany to South Africa.
According to Taylor's court documents, the painting passed to German art dealer Marcel Goldschmidt, and then to art collector Alfred Wolf, before being auctioned in 1963. That year, Taylor's father, Francis Taylor, bought the painting on his daughter's behalf for $257,600.
Robert Levy, a Beverly Hills appraiser, said it could go as high as $15 million today.
"It would certainly fare well in today's auction market," Levy said. "This painting is a most desirable work from the last year of the artist's life."
Many people have sued to recover artwork taken from their European ancestors by Nazis, who stole an estimated 600,000 artworks between 1933 and 1945. About 100,000 museum-quality pieces are still missing.
In May, a Virginia museum returned a Nazi-confiscated painting to the heir of art collector Julius Priester.
In June, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed a Los Angeles woman to sue the Austrian government for the return of six Gustav Klimt paintings the Nazis took from her uncle.