A family valiantly fighting to recover what was once theirs—or a fishing trip for fine art? Andrew Orkin never met his great-grandmother Margarete Mauthner, but he knows her reputation: Born in Berlin in 1863, Mauthner was a Jewish intellectual and arts patron who parted with her collection of paintings before escaping Nazi Germany in 1939 to start a new life in South Africa. "When people flee for their lives," says Orkin, 52, a Hamilton, Ontario, lawyer, "they lose everything."

Now Orkin and three relatives are fighting to get something back—and find themselves pitted against an unlikely opponent: Elizabeth Taylor. On Oct. 13, the family sued the Hollywood actress under the terms of the 1998 Holocaust Victims Redress Act in an attempt to recover a Van Gogh painting that once belonged to Mauthner. Orkin contends that Nazi persecution forced Mauthner to sell or surrender the canvas, View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint-Rémy, which Taylor subsequently acquired at a 1963 London auction. A Taylor spokesperson declined comment, but after asking a court in May to name her the rightful owner, the actress said in a statement she had "not been presented with any information that suggests the painting was ever in Nazi possession."

That's not the point, says Orkin. When Taylor's father, Francis, an art dealer, bought the painting on her behalf for $257,600, three catalogues listed Mauthner (who died in 1947) as a previous owner without explaining when or how the work was transferred to later owners. Although the family doesn't have records to prove the Nazis actually seized the Van Gogh directly from Mauthner, they insist she was forced to give it up at a time when official persecution forced German Jews to sell off assets. That maybe, says Toronto attorney Bonnie Czegledi, a specialist in heritage law, but when Taylor bought the Van Gogh "this was not an issue that was on anybody's radar screen."

Whether Orkin can prove his case remains for a court to decide. But Czegledi says that in her opinion negotiated agreements in which disputed works end up going to a museum or charity are the most satisfactory outcomes of all. "That way," she says, "something very good can come of something very tragic."