Jewish Heirs Sue Germany to Return Art Sold to Nazis

Heirs of Nazi-era Jewish art dealers say they've filed a lawsuit in a U.S. court to force a Germany museum to return $226 million worth of medieval art.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Medieval Dome Reliquary (13th century) of the Welfenschatz, displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin.
Medieval Dome Reliquary (13th century) of the Welfenschatz, displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin. Credit: AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The struggle between the German government and the descendants of a group of Jewish art collectors ramped up this week as the heirs to the Nazi-era owners 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 million.

The suit, which attorneys said was filed late Monday in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., is the latest salvo in a long-running campaign by the heirs for return of the so-called Welfenschatz, or Guelph Treasure — which they claim their ancestors sold under Nazi pressure.

The German government on Monday declared the collection a “national cultural asset” in an attempt to tighten its grip on the artwork – meaning that any attempt to remove any part of the collection from Germany will require the approval of the country's secretary for cultural affairs.

"It’s not just valuable items from museums that is involved, but preserving world culture,” said Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

The collection includes drawings, precious stones and holy vessels dating from the 11th to 15th centuries, and is known as the Welfenschatz, or Guelph Treasure. It originally belonged to three German dukes, who sold it to four Jewish art collectors from Frankfurt in 1929. The latter later sold half the collection, bringing the remainder with them to Amsterdam when they fled the Nazis in 1934. In 1935, the Dresden Bank purchased the collection from them for 4.25 million Reich marks in the name of the State of Prussia, headed by Herman Goering, Hitler’s deputy, who was among the biggest Nazi art thieves.

The plaintiffs in the current suit claim that this price was 35 percent of the real value of the collection. Moreover, the sum was only paid in part. Their choice was clear: their goods or their lives, the lawsuit asserts.

The two plaintiffs are descendants of two of the Jewish dealers who sold the collection to the Nazis. Alan Philipp from London is the grandson of Zacharias Max Hackenbroch, and Gerald Stiebel from Santa Fe, New Mexico is the nephew of Isaak Rosenbaum. Stiebel is also an art collector.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, now in possession of the artwork, is operated by the German government, and is displaying the collection in a Berlin museum.

In 2008, heirs of the Jewish art dealers turned to the foundation and demanded the return of the collection. Last year, Israel's culture minister, Limor Livnat, sent a letter to her German counterpart, in which she wrote that returning the artwork to the descendants of the original Jewish collectors is vital to the Jewish people, to Holocaust survivors in Israel and to the world in general.

A year ago, an arbitration case on the matter ended when a panel of German experts, working within the framework of the so-called Limbach Advisory Commission, ruled that the collection would remain in the hands of the cultural foundation. The committee ruled that the price the Nazis paid to the Jewish art dealers for the artwork was reasonable relative to the period in question, and that the dealers had received their money.

On Monday, the descendants of the collectors filed suit against the German government and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in a court in Washington, D.C.

The lawyer for the two plaintiffs told Haaretz that Germany has failed to understand the law, according to which the sale of Jewish property carried out by Nazi Germany – and especially by the Nazi government itself – was invalid because it was carried out under duress.

In their brief, they claim Germany is violating its international obligation to come to a just and fair solution in settling suits to restore art items that the Nazis looted from Jews. The plaintiffs also noted the fact that items the Nazis looted from Jews are still in the possession of many public and private institutions in Germany, and that in past they even were displayed in the office of the chancellor.

Lawyers from several countries, including Israel, the United States and Germany, filed the lawsuit. Shai Barnov, a partner in the firm of ZAG/S&W, told Haaretz that “filling the lawsuit it likely to bring the desire justice, albeit late.” He added that the suit was part of the ongoing effort “to restore assets of Holocaust victims and survivors to their inheritors."

Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Hermann Parzinger, issued the following statement in response to the U.S. lawsuit: "I am astonished by this step. It was the express wish of the claimants to present the case to the Advisory Commission. The Foundation decided to meet this wish unreservedly and always made clear that it would follow the Advisory Commission's recommendation regardless of the outcome. The claimants have repeatedly emphasized how highly they value the Advisory Commission. Considering this, it impresses us as strange that after the Commission followed in full the arguments of the Foundation last March, the claimants have now decided to file a lawsuit in the United States. The applicants' legal representative had told me that the applicants would also accept and abide by the recommendation of the Commission. I am not aware of any new facts that might lead to a different evaluation of the case. While we believe that there is no jurisdiction over this claim in the United States, we are confident that any court ruling on the merits would reach the same conclusion that we and the Advisory Commission have reached."

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