U.S. Federal Judge Rules Heirs Can Sue Germany In U.S. Court For Return Of Nazi-Looted Art

Legal technicalities and barriers like arbitrary statutes of limitations have been used to deny families recovery of art stolen from families by the Nazis.  The Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016 makes it easier for the heirs of victims of Nazi Germany to seek restitution in US courts.

The Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act was first introduced by Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in April[2016] …Specifically, the bill extends the statute of limitations for returning stolen artwork to six years from the date a piece of art was first identified as stolen and the identity of its real owner determined.” WashingtonExaminer

Germany will have to defend itself in US court for the first time over art allegedly looted by the Nazis, following a 31 March ruling by a Washington, DC federal judge that denied the country’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit seeking to recover the Guelph Treasure. The case is one of the first affected by the recently enacted Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (Hear) Act, which makes it easier for the heirs of victims of the Nazi regime to file restitution claims in the US.

In 1935, a consortium of German-Jewish dealers sold a collection of medieval relics and devotional art once owned by the House of Guelph to the state of Prussia. Their heirs, Alan Philipp, Gerald Stiebel and Jed Leiber, say the dealers were coerced by the Nazis into selling the work for barely 35% of its market value, and that they were targeted not only because they were Jewish but because they were considered traitors for trying to sell off Germany’s national treasures.

The plaintiffs say the sale was spearheaded by Hermann Goering and Adolf Hitler, who wanted to “save” the Guelph Treasure for the German Reich, and cite a letter from the mayor of Frankfurt requesting Hitler “create the legal and financial preconditions for [its] return”. After the sale, Goering presented it as a “surprise gift” to Hitler, according to court documents.

Germany and the state-run Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which administers Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts where the Guelph Treasure is now on display, contend that the transaction was a legitimate arm’s length negotiation, its low price explained by the Great Depression and the collapse of the German art market. Before that, the consortium had managed to sell 40 objects—almost half of the objects—to institutions and private collectors for a total of 2.5m Reichsmark. The remaining works were sold to the state of Prussia for 4.25m Reichsmark. Since the dealers paid 7.5m Reichsmark for the collection in 1929, they suffered a 10% loss in the overall sale.

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly rejected the defendants’ argument for dismissal based on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which prohibits lawsuits against other countries, but makes an exception where the government takes property in violation of international law. The Nazi’s systematic plunder of Jewish property “constitute[s] genocide and genocide… is a clear violation of international law”, Judge Kollar-Kotelly wrote.  TheArtNewsPaper

The Guelph Treasure

Cross from the Guelph Treasure (Bode Museum, Berlin)

The Guelph Treasure (German: Welfenschatz) is the collection of medieval ecclesiastical art originally housed at Brunswick Cathedral in Braunschweig, Germany. Most of the objects were removed from the cathedral in the 17th century and dispersed in the 1930s.

The Treasure takes its name from the princely House of Guelph of Brunswick-Lüneburg.

The Guelph Treasure passed from Brunswick Cathedral into the hands of John Frederick, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, in 1671, and remained in the Court Chapel at Hanover until 1803.

In 1929 Ernest Augustus, Duke of Brunswick, sold 82 items to a consortium of Frankfurt art dealers Saemy Rosenberg, Isaak Rosenbaum, Julius Falk, Arthur Goldschmidt and Zacharias Hackenbroch. Items from the Treasure were exhibited in the United States in 1930–31.[1]Cleveland Museum of Art purchased nine pieces and more were sold to other museums and private collectors.

In 1934 the remaining 40 pieces of the collection, which had been retained by several German-Jewish art dealers from Frankfurt, were purchased for 4.25 million Reichsmarks via Wilhelm Stuckart by the Prussian State under its Prime Minister Hermann Göring and displayed in Berlin.

The Berlin portion of the Guelph Treasure is now exhibited at the Bode Museum in Berlin. WOW