The heirs to a painting by John Constable hanging in a museum in western Switzerland have filed a lawsuit in a regional court to get the artwork back after the museum refused to return it to them six years ago.
On Tuesday, the Municipal Council of La Chaux-de-Fonds in the Jura region confirmed to swissinfo.ch that the lawsuit had been filed, stating that city officials had not yet been formally notified of the case. Once they are notified, the city’s communications office indicated that officials would decide how to proceed, “weighing all the options, as [we] have always done in this case”.
The lawsuit was filed by heirs of John and Anna Jaffé, who were British nationals of German Jewish heritage living on the French Riviera. Their collection of more than 60 valuable paintings was seized by the pro-Nazi Vichy government in 1942. Constable’s “Dedham from Langham”, which now hangs in La-Chaux-de-Fonds' Fine Arts Museum, was one of those paintings.
The Jaffé heirs tried, unsuccessfully, to get the painting back through a request to the town of La-Chaux-de-Fonds in 2006. In 2009, the town council said that after seeking legal advice it would not return the work.
The heirs also tried bring about a referendum that would have the town vote on whether to give back the painting. That attempt also failed.
Alain Monteagle, one of the heirs to the collection working to get the Constable painting back, told swissinfo.ch in 2013 that “The museum had done its own provenance research and knew very well that the painting had belonged to the Jaffés, who in fact owned a summer chalet close by, in Chaumont, above Neuchâtel. Like too many other museums, it did not bother to seek the descendants.”
For its part, the museum acknowledges that the painting was looted but believes it was acquired in good faith. As such, the law does not require them to give it back, said Jean-Pierre Veya, the La Chaux-de-Fonds city counsellor in charge of the 2009 claim, in 2013.
“Although it is our duty to recognise the hardship endured by the Jews during the Nazi era, it is also our obligation to stay within the boundaries of the law,” Veya said at the time.