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French family seeks return of 'stolen' Constable painting from Museum of Fine Arts in La Chaux-de-Fonds
File image of John Constable by Daniel Gardner, 1796. Photo:

GENEVA (AFP).- A French family has taken legal steps in Switzerland to recover a painting by the master English landscape painter John Constable that they say was stolen from them in World War II, a legal source said Tuesday.

The Jaffe family say a Constable work, "The Stour Valley," was confiscated along with other paintings and works of art by France's collaborationist Vichy government in 1942.

The collection was seized after the death of Anna Jaffe, a member of a prominent family of German-born Jews, and was auctioned off in Nice in 1943.

After a number of years and several changes of ownership, the Museum of Fine Arts in the Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds was bequeathed the painting by a local family.

The quarrel dates back to 2006, when a member of the family asked the municipality of La Chaux-de-Fonds to hand over the painting.

The town refused, saying that it and the donors, the Junod family, had acted in good faith.

A judge in La Chaux-de-Fonds told AFP Tuesday that Jaffe's family had formally filed for conciliation -- the first step under civil law to seek the return of a disputed possession. If the two sides fail to reach common ground, the case will then go to court.

The town council on Tuesday said it would not make any comment until it had been officially advised of the proceedings.

Constable's nostalgic paintings of the pre-industrial landscape of late 18th and early 19th century English landscape make him one of the most popular and valued painters in Britain.

In 2012, his painting "The Lock" sold at auction in London for £22.4 million ($32.5 million, 29.66 million euros).

According to the Jewish research site Akadem, the Jaffe family rose to prominence in the late 19th century.

Sir Otto Jaffe, a German-born businessman and philanthropist, was the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Belfast and his brother John became head of the city's chamber of commerce.

John Jaffe married Anna, nee Gluge, and the couple moved to Nice, on the coveted Promenade des Anglais on the city shoreline, where they lived in a mansion, the Villa Jaffe. John Jaffe died in 1933, and his wife outlived him for another nine years.

The 1943 sale of their art collection saw 60 confiscated works head to Germany.

One of them, "The Grand Canal in Venice with Palazzo Bembo," a late 18th-century landscape by Francesco Guardi, ended up in Adolf Hitler's personal museum in Linz, Austria.

It was recovered after the war by the French state and eventually handed over to the family's descendants, along with two other paintings, in 2005.

Those works were auctioned in London the same year, with the Getty art museum acquiring the Guardi for £4.37 million.

© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse

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