The heirs of Nazi-era Jewish art dealers say they have filed a lawsuit in the U.S. suing Germany and a German museum for the return of a medieval treasure trove worth an estimated $226 – 250m.
The suit, which attorneys said was filed late Monday in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., is part of a long-running effort by the heirs for return of the so-called Welfenschatz, or Guelph Treasure. They allege that the Nazis forced the sale of medieval relics at an extremely low price.
The treasure was originally amassed by the Cathedral of St. Blasius in Braunschweig in Germany. After the reformation, the cathedral became Lutheran and in the 17th century its treasure passed into the hands of the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg in 1671. It remained in the court chapel at Hanover until 1803. In 1929 – on the eve of the great depression – 82 items were sold to a consortium of Frankfurt dealers. Items from the treasure were exhibited in USA in 1930-31 and Cleveland Museum of Art purchased nine pieces, while other items were sold to private collectors. At that time the treasure was described as the greatest single group of medieval objects ever offered for sale in America. In general, European art historians, curators and politicians were critical of the massive collections of medieval art, which were amassed in US and the dispersion of the treasure was considered a huge loss at that time. However, because of the economic depression the consortium had trouble selling the remaining 42 pieces. In 1934 they were sold to the state of Prussia, which at the time was governed by top Nazi Hermann Goering. The price was 4.25 million Reichsmarks.
Originally collected over centuries by the Braunschweig Cathedral, the Welfenschatz includes some of the most outstanding goldsmith works of the Middle Ages, among them ornate reliquaries, processional crosses, prescious manuscripts etc. It recently went on show again in Berlin, after the Museum of Decorative Arts had undergone a complete restoration.
The suit asks the Washington court to declare an American and a British descendant of a consortium that owned the collection in 1935 — when it was sold to the German state of Prussia — as the rightful owners today. The plaintiffs are identified in the suit as Alan Philipp from London and Gerald Stiebel from Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“Any transaction in 1935, where the sellers on the one side were Jews and the buyer on the other side was the Nazi state itself is by definition a void transaction,” O’Donnell claims to AP.
However, the organization that oversees Berlin’s museums, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, says that the collectors were not forced to sell the pieces, arguing among other things that the collection was not even in Germany at the time of its sale, which took place well before the war. This opinion is based on a careful review, which was carried out last year by a German government commission especially created to help resolve such restitution claims. After having evaluated both arguments the so-called Limback-commission recommended that the collection stay in Germany. The commission wrote that after thoroughly investigating the sale process, it came to the conclusion that it was not a “forced sale due to persecution.” The commission’s recommendations aren’t binding, but they are often accepted by parties in such disputes.
The foundation’s president, Herrmann Parzinger, said Tuesday that he was “astonished” by the claimants’ decision to sue for the collection: “The applicants’ legal representative had told me that the applicants would also accept and abide by the recommendation of the Commission,” Parzinger said in a statement. “I am not aware of any new facts that might lead to a different evaluation of the case.”
German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters said in another statement, that she noted the development with regret, calling the heirs’ claim “difficult to understand.” –
However, the heirs’ attorney O’Donnell called last year’s recommendation by the commission “flawed,” and said his clients decided to file suit in Washington because they feel “U.S. federal courts are the best suited to sort out these ownership rights” based on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. There have been other cases in which heirs of looted art have sued Germany or German government museums in U.S. courts. However, two recent cases involving looted art were dismissed by the courts on sovereign immunity grounds.
Complicating matters is thus that the state of Berlin a few days ago declared the collection a national cultural treasure, meaning the art pieces can no longer leave the country without the explicit permission of the country’s culture minister. It is unclear if Parzinger and German Culture Minister Monika Grütters were aware of the US lawsuit at the time of the announcement.
‘The greatest group of medieval objects ever offered for sale’. The Guelph Treasure and America, 1930–1931
By Christina Nielsen
Journal of the History of Collections 2015: Advance Access 03.02.2015